Published In

Water Resources Update

Document Type


Publication Date



Water quality -- Management, Agriculture -- Environmental policy, Environmental risk assessment, Industries -- Environmental aspects


Why is reducing water pollution from agriculture such a stubbornly slow process? Despite several policy initiatives since the 1970s, farms and ranches rank as the primary contributors to impairments of the nation's surface waters [U.S.EPA, 1994b]. Emerging research also points to agricultural chemicals in many cases of groundwater contamination [Barbash and Resek; Mueller, et al.]. After a little reflection, the industry's negative distinction may not be surprising. Covering nearly half the U.S. land base, crop and livestock production inevitably alter natural vegetative cover, apply fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation water, and involve animal wastes. All of these processes can degrade water quality.

Without question, cases of water quality improvement as well as degradation occur within agriculture's number one ranking. Stream, lake, and groundwater success stories have come from federal, state, and local efforts. However, the overall weight of the evidence indicates the industry's performance needs to improve rather sharply if the nation's water quality is to advance to a higher plateau in line with broad public preference.

This paper's central thesis is that dramatic changes in program approaches are necessary for that advance because of powerful budget, economic, and political forces. Continued reliance on programs subsidizing or regulating best management practices (BMPs) conflicts with those forces in fundamental ways. Moreover, promising technologies and improved water quality science support more flexible, whole farm approaches for targeted priority watersheds.


Originally published in Water Resources Update 101.

Persistent Identifier