EWG Urges USDA to Target Funds for Cleaner Water

A new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds that enrolling farmers into the voluntary federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is unlikely to result in cleaner water unless taxpayer funds are targeted to the highest priority locations and used in watershed-scale clean-up projects.

The report on the 10 Mississippi River border states finds that the EQIP program, which pays farmers and ranchers to reduce farm runoff, improve water and air quality, and preserve wildlife habitat, is a promising but unfocused tool for remedying the unintended environmental consequences of agriculture.

EWG calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to seize this watershed moment to:

  • set clear and specific goals for how much pollution needs to be reduced,
  • identify which lakes, streams or tributaries are priorities for improvement, and
  • set a timetable to achieve those goals.

However, if EQIP is not effectively targeted and if Congress and the Obama administration fail to fully fund the program, there is little hope for improving either local water quality or the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The track record on targeting is poor and EQIP funding has fallen short of what was promised in the Farm Bill every year since 2002. President Obama's 2010 budget continues the string of bad news, proposing funding for EQIP that is $250 million lower than was provided in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The report recommends that the 10 states use 60 percent of their EQIP funds in watershed-scale water quality clean-up projects. This approach encourages multiple farmers in a watershed -- the land draining into a specific stream, river, or lake -- to reduce pollution by an amount needed to restore that waterbody's water quality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long-identified agriculture as a leading source of sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus pollution in the nation's waterways. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Society identified fertilizers and livestock waste from farmlands in just nine states (seven of which border the Mississippi River) as the source of over 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution causing the 8,000 square mile Dead Zone in the Northern Gulf of Mexico.

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