Federal Regulations or Market Reforms for Agricultural Runoff and Water Quality?”
“Externalities” are costs imposed on others. A factory or farm dumping waste into local rivers or lakes is “externalizing” a cost of production. Reducing production costs by pushing air and water pollution on others has long been recognized as a violation of the common law, and since passage of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, a violation of federal law.
A great many reform proposals for agricultural policy address pollution issues. It is fairly straightforward to force single factories or farms to reduce pollution (however, state and federal government pollution regulations are often more costly and less effective than alternatives).
Regulations designed for single-point source pollution are unable to control nonpoint source pollution. When hundreds or thousands of small factories and farms release small amounts of pollutants into the air and water, each individually causes little or no harm, but collectively the pollution has significant consequences.
The United States has more than 330 million acres of agricultural land that produce an abundant supply of food and other products. American agriculture is noted worldwide for its high productivity, quality and efficiency in delivering goods to consumers. When improperly managed, however, activities from working farms and ranches can impact local and far-field water quality.
But then reports:
The National Water Quality Assessment shows that agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and streams, the third largest source for lakes, the second largest source of impairments to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of surveyed estuaries and ground water.
This 2014 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article calls for a “New Clean Water Act” to deal with nonpoint source pollution: “Congress needs to adjust the act to help agriculture deal with runoff…” and then focuses on Lake Michigan algae blooms:
“While Green Bay holds a mere 1.4% of Lake Michigan’s water, it receives one-third of the lake’s nutrient load — due largely to the farm fields that drip phosphorus-rich manure into the streams, creeks and rivers that flow toward the bay. Samples taken in many of those waterways over the past decade show average summer phosphorus levels twice as high — and sometimes four times as high — as what scientists say is acceptable.”
That level of phosphorus triggers those late-summer algae blooms that smother beaches. And when the algae blooms die and decompose, they burn up oxygen, creating chronic dead zones in Green Bay in which almost nothing can live. According to state Department of Natural Resources figures, agriculture accounts for 45.7% of the phosphorus in the lower Fox River and Green Bay, with industrial discharges accounting for 20.8% and municipal discharges 15.9%. Yes, industrial and municipal discharges still need to be addressed, but that can yield only marginal improvements unless agriculture discharge is addressed, too.
Also addressing algae blooms, this June 13, 2016 WSJ article: “Midwest Goes After Algae,” reports on other state efforts to reduce agricultural runoff contributing to algae blooms:
Ohio is joining a growing list of states ramping up efforts to control potentially toxic algal blooms that are fouling water supplies and making summer swims dangerous in lakes, ponds and reservoirs across the country with increasing frequency.