New Funding for Climate-Smart Farm Commodities Could Improve Water Quality
Fifty years ago today, Congress passed the landmark Clean Water Act, the nation’s first comprehensive attempt to protect water quality. The Act does not regulate nonpoint sources of water pollution such as runoff from farm fields, urban areas, or the suburbs. Instead, through its Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program, it relies on voluntary partnerships, watershed planning, and water quality monitoring to clean up impaired waterbodies. In agriculturally dominated watersheds, it also relies on funding from the USDA to supplement its small Section 319 budget – just $178 million in FY 2022 – which includes financial and technical assistance for farmers to adopt water-protecting practices.
Just last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded $2.8 billion – that’s billion with a “b” – to 70 projects with over 800 partners across the country to generate “climate-smart” farming, ranching, and forestry commodities over five years. Our organization is thrilled to be a part of four winning proposals. This is a historic investment by the federal government in practices that can increase soil carbon sequestration and/or reduce greenhouse emissions (GHG) from the agriculture sector, which currently contributes about 11% of total U.S. GHG emissions. This funding announcement comes on the heels of Congress’ enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provides a historic $20 billion for USDA conservation programs.
This infusion of taxpayer support for agricultural solutions to climate change will also solve water quality problems on individual farms because many of the same practices that are good for the climate protect water quality as well. Both sources of new funds will also support the measurement and monitoring of the critically needed GHG benefits. Simultaneously, the Climate Smart Commodity Program (CSCP) projects (and beyond) could seize the opportunity to clean up impaired waterbodies where the project locations overlap with ailing streams or lakes, if they implement key components of a 319 project to lead to measurably cleaner water. In this blog, Bianca and I offer explanations and recommendations for how this huge new focus on the climate can also benefit water quality.
Climate-smart practices protect water too: Of the 15 practices listed in the National Funding Opportunity (NFO) for the CSCP, the majority are agriculture’s go-to water quality solutions for the unintended water, soil, and fertilizer losses that occur during the production of food, fuel, and fiber on farm fields. Cover crops, low-till or no-till, and nutrient management are commonly known as soil health practices with triple win benefits for water quality, the climate, and farm profitability. In combination, these soil health management systems can pay for themselves through reduced fertilizer and chemical input costs, lower machinery and labor costs, and in many cases stabilized or improved yields.
This is because they keep soil and fertilizers in place and over time, they rebuild and protect the habitat of soil organisms to allow them to flourish. Happy soil microbes increase soil carbon sequestration, water infiltration, water holding capacity, nutrient cycling, and a multitude of other soil functions. All of this helps fields withstand the increasingly intense and erratic weather events like excessive and more frequent rains in the spring and the more harsh and longer drought periods in summer – symptoms of climate change that exacerbate challenges to our nation’s already impaired water bodies and associated ecosystems.
When these in-field soil health practices are combined into well-adapted soil health management systems and complemented with edge-of-field practices like vegetative or tree buffers, both climate and water quality win again. When used within fields or at the edges of fields, grasses, trees, and soil organisms help sequester carbon and infiltrate the majority of rainfall, leaving little runoff. Any remaining runoff can be trapped and cleaned before entering field ditches and streams. On livestock farms, practices that reduce greenhouse gas methane include manure management, feed management, and climate-smart pasture management. All of these systems changes keep critical nutrients on the farm and out of nearby streams and reduce climate-damaging emissions as well.
Opportunity for measured CSCP climate outcomes to broadly improve modeling: Along with this new funding and the partnership-based approach to gaining farmer adoption of these climate and water quality practices, the CSCP funding comes with a requirement that partners measure/quantify, monitor, report, and verify (MMRV), soil carbon sequestration and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. And USDA intends to use this collective experience with MMRV to inform future measurement and quantification standards. This is a significant opportunity to advance the modeling and monitoring tools to better quantify environmental outcomes, not just for project leaders within their individual projects, but for the scientific and agricultural community at large. In addition, the IRA also provides $300 million for quantification of climate benefits by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
These two investments in climate outcomes quantification are huge opportunities and will create a lot of potentially useful data – especially if coordination across projects facilitates a collaborative approach to reach as many diverse producers, systems, and acres as possible with the best possible approaches as project leaders share insights with each other, and if resources and data can be pooled across all projects and shared beyond those involved in each project.
USDA could fully seize these opportunities if it provided more guidance and training to ensure that projects that are directly monitoring climate benefits are following the best available protocols and leveraging each other’s expertise to make further improvements along the way.
And while addressing farmer data privacy concerns, the agency could commit to compiling the collected data into a national calibration dataset and making that national multi-billion-dollar dataset accessible to the research community to advance the state of knowledge about climate-smart systems, beyond what can be done by individual projects. As a complementary investment in the future of broadly improved outcomes modeling, researchers could use these data for years to come, to calibrate computer modeling tools to make them more accurate, usable, and relevant, as they are adapted to work for more production systems and geographic areas, and to reflect more environmentally protective practices.
Furthermore, USDA could provide additional incentives, guidance, and training to projects so they could also quantify the water quality benefits of practices within and at the edges of fields. The research community could also use these data to gain a complete and accurate picture of not only the climate benefits, but also the water quality benefits of the same practices.
To help clean up ailing streams and lakes, projects should include targeted watershed components: What we’ve learned after 50 years of the Clean Water Act, is that cleaning up polluted streams and lakes is possible! In fact, there are 711 Success Stories that you can read to know that your taxpayer dollars are working! And for the majority of these 2-page success stories about partially or fully restoring a waterbody back to health, most of the agricultural watershed success stories occurred because of partnerships between EPA, USDA, and local farm and environmental groups within the watersheds. In fact, the majority of what are called “319 Nonpoint Source Projects” (named after Section 319 of the Clean Water Act 1987 amendments) are agricultural projects and they receive most of the 319 funds (followed by urban runoff).
One thing that all of these Success Stories have in common is that they followed a watershed-based plan and included water quality monitoring following the 2016 EPA Monitoring Guide to prove that water quality got better. There is also the 2003 USDA NRCS National Water Quality Handbook that is quite terrific, too. Recognizing this, both USDA and EPA could offer voluntary trainings to the new climate-smart commodity project leaders to better understand the opportunities to leverage their projects to simultaneously achieve and measure water quality improvements. The agencies could provide advice and support to enable the inclusion of water quality outcomes quantification efforts by the CSCP projects that desire to do so (i.e., developing a 9-element watershed-based plan, harnessing available modeling tools to estimate water quality outcomes, or even developing a new water quality monitoring program).
For their part, the 70 climate-smart commodity projects leaders should seek out support from their state Section 319 Nonpoint Source Program coordinator to find out if their project areas overlap with waterbodies on the state impaired waters list.
Some leaders may find there are targeted watershed projects already in place in their project areas with water quality monitoring underway that could be leveraged with these new projects for scaling up impact more rapidly and more broadly. Should they seize the opportunity to become partners in the existing watershed projects, they could not only mitigate climate change, but also restore the ecological health of those water bodies and add those streams or lakes to the Success Stories list!
There is a lot of excitement in the air on this 50-year anniversary of the Clean Water Act. With some recognition of the opportunities and a commitment by the USDA, EPA, and by conservation project leaders to follow best practices to quantify climate and water quality outcomes, these historic funding commitments to address climate change could significantly move the needle for cleaner water as well.
Bianca Moebius-Clune, PhD, AFT Climate Initiative director co-authored this blog post. For insights into how six targeted watershed projects achieved measurably cleaner water, please see AFT’s Water Quality Targeting Success Stories report. For options to quantify water quality, climate, social, or economic outcomes of farm conservation projects, see AFT’s Guide to Outcomes Estimation Tools.