Runoff from agriculture is the leading cause of pollution in our public waterways and has become a chronic problem. The evidence is apparent in recurrent events like dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico, as well as severe algae blooms in Lake Erie that directly link to drinking water contamination and tap water shutoffs in Toledo, Ohio.
Despite the allocation of billions of federal and state dollars towards agricultural conservation and clean up efforts, pollution has not diminished. Voluntary cleanup approaches continue to fail and pollution from agriculture remains largely unregulated.
Rather than enforcing mandatory pollution controls, there has instead been a push towards water quality trading, or water pollution trading. Under these mechanisms, “polluter A” can enlist “polluter B” to reduce its discharges and generate “credits” that polluter A can then count towards its required pollution reductions. Proponents claim trading encourages cleaner agricultural systems and even generates additional funds for conservation and cleanup efforts.
Contrary to these claims, trading has not cleaned up pollution from agriculture, and the significant financial investment in voluntary conservation efforts, or best management practices (BMPs), has also been ineffective. Between 2009 and 2014, financial assistance for BMPs in farming, by way of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA), totaled more than $11 billion.
Aside from these huge assistance programs, there exist several other programs like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) fund, which has provided $225 million to farmers since 1988. These numbers do not even include the millions of dollars made available at the state level for the same purposes. California, a state that received the second highest amount of EQIP funding in 2013 to the tune of $96.8 million, provided an additional $17.9 million from their State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP).
Comparatively, underperforming trading programs across the country only bring in revenues that are a tiny fraction of the billions of revenue made available via government assistance. Since the commencement of the Pennsylvania Nutrient Trading Program in 2005, reports show around $1.5 million has been used to purchase credits. Alternatively, total government funding made available to Pennsylvania through EQIP, CSP and AMA from 2009 to 2014 is more than $174 million with an additional $10.6 million coming from the SARE program from 1988 to present day.
Mandatory pollution controls, not voluntary efforts like trading, are what have actually worked in cleaning up polluted waterways. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that through regulation under the Clean Water Act (CWA), 83 percent of point source pollution reduction targets were met while only 20 percent of targets for nonpoint source reductions were achieved without regulation and only through voluntary compliance.
Ultimately, runoff from agriculture must be addressed through mandatory pollution controls. Voluntary approaches have not worked, and more money has not and will not solve the problem either. Trading is not about cleaning up agriculture or our waterways; it is about providing alternative options for polluters to meet their permitted discharge limits. In reality, it has materialized as a way for polluters to evade complying with pollution limits. Proponents’ argument that it is needed to provide additional funding for conservation efforts is also unsupported.
If the goal is to clean up pollution from agricultural runoff in our public waterways, it is clear that mandatory regulations are needed, and any governmental assistance must be tied to mandatory pollution reductions. The success in regulating point source polluters cannot be refuted. Trading pollution is an ineffective attempt at a solution, and any claims to the contrary remain false.
Elizabeth Nussbaumer is a senior researcher and Tyler Chilcott is a summer intern with the common resources program.