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Working with Farmers to Protect Our Waterways

Agriculture means working with water bodies to nourish healthy plants for human consumption. However, several factors — like toxic fertilizers and pesticides — pollute waterways, causing aquatic life stress and human health concerns.

How do governmental funding and profit margins influence a farm’s desire to curb runoff into local streams and rivers? There are contrasting perspectives, but there are solutions to balance the needs of waterways and farmers, so every entity stays nutritious and productive.

Contentious Regulatory Action

Governments worldwide have attempted to place regulations on farmers for decades to protect natural habitats and resources. However, it is not always in the best interest of farmers to support these rules. Fertilizers, manure, compost and pesticides keep farms thriving and free of insects and creatures seeking to snack off their efforts.

However, these chemicals — including nitrates and phosphorus — embed into the soil and the air, finding their way into waterways. They also enter drainage systems underneath the land and there is little protection over the water channels where the pipes deposit their contents. While they impact aquatic ecosystems for the worse through trophic transfer, these harmful pollutants make their way onto dinner plates and water bottles.

Though environmental benchmarks exist, adherence and oversight are minimal. Because of combative megafarm corporations and other vocal advocates, there are not regulations concerning specific farming practices company owners must abide by to reduce water pollution. Additionally, attempts at regulation like the Clean Water Rule confused farmers, spurring an outcry over how governments define their responsibilities.

Effective Alternative Farming Methods

Cross-contamination is possible, no matter the scale of the farm. It may require non-traditional farming methods and an industry-wide mindset shift, but profits can remain in the black while preserving the health of water and its life.

Farms can still use the chemicals and manure that help their plants grow, but they must implement measures to stop it from heading into the water. One of the ways to do this is by capturing these compounds before they infect soil or air. Farms could keep a hearty supply of cover crops for nitrate maintenance.

Buffer strips of tall grass or fences are another method of stream protection that governments should require of farmland. These edge-of-field practices stop incoming pollutants and prevent livestock from entering waterways that could potentially introduce contaminants.

Stopping livestock from grazing on buffer strips or drinking from waterways means farms need on-site alternative water sources. It will make farmers more cognizant of water waste and how to improve water efficiency on their land.

Mechanisms like rain barrels and irrigation work well to reduce reliance on natural streams and rivers. Installing more conveniences closer to crops and livestock increases workforce efficiency while simultaneously increasing waterways’ sanctity. Companies could incorporate more fixtures and machines on farmland to show farmers the benefits of systems like these, encouraging a more self-motivated switch to protect water.

Agreeable Widespread Solutions

Many farms know of these methods for reducing pollution and increasing water access and independence, but only some try to implement them. Widespread regulation needs to happen to enforce some of these best practices, but it will not tempt farmers enough.

Repeated lawsuits and federal legislation attempt fluctuate too wildly in efficacy. Regardless, this does not mean attempts should not continue. It just asserts that alternative measures need implementation while governments catch up. States, volunteers and educational institutions could lay the groundwork for protecting waterways from toxic farming methods.

For example, Virginia attempted to incentivize farmers by creating the Virginia Agricultural Cost Share Program, which provides funds to farmers who want to protect waterways and reduce nitrogen pollution. Funding projects like this is a significant feat, requiring research and time. Regardless, some states are attempting to find happy mediums so farmers do not feel forced to implement change, but they can do so with rewards. It was an entirely volunteer-based initiative and though financial incentives reduced potential friction, the state still discovered low funding to meet demand.

Programs like these are the way to go until there are more consistent points of view from a government perspective. Programs incentivize and educate farmers, potentially too lax or complacent in their methods, fund and expand operations for greater water sustainability. Examples include:

  • Conservation Stewardship Program
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program
  • Conservation Reserve Program

Advocating for Waterway Advocacy

Leveling the playing field will be difficult as priorities differ from farmer to government. However, convincing farmers to make an effort to protect waterways is possible through education and compromise. It may also require more strict enactment of regulations or compliance, but the most critical component is company buy-in. Without enthusiasm from farmers, waterways will continue receiving toxic chemicals and runoff from the agricultural industry.

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