Study Finds Public Funds for Water Clean-Up Poorly Used in California

Chemicals from California’s agricultural industry have been polluting the state’s water resources for decades, yet the largest source of public funds to remedy the nitrate and pesticide tainted water are significantly underutilized.

That’s the key finding in a report released today by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). The report, entitled “Untapped: How Farm Bill Conservation Programs Can Do More Clean Up California’s Water,” analyzes the two most significant federal conservation programs aimed at improving water quality —the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP).

These programs are administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and they provide millions of dollars t o California farmers and ranchers to help them reduce water pollution, build healthier soil, protect air quality, and enhance water habitat.

Water pollution is a major problem in California. Eighty-five percent of California residents depend on ground water for a portion of their drinking water, and yet many such sources are tainted by nitrates and pesticides. Nitrates, which come from fertilizers and manure, pose a particular risk to infants and pregnant women. A University of California-Davis study from last year found that 250,000 people in the agricultural intensive areas of Tulare Lake Basin in the Central Valley and the Salinas Valley were at risk of drinking water from nitrate-contaminated wells.

Conservation funding is the greatest potential source of funds to help farmers and ranchers reduce fertilizer and pesticide pollution. But according to EWG, the programs are not getting much bang for the buck.

The report found that nearly 80 percent of conservation funds go to irrigation systems that EWG says by themselves will not produce significant reductions in pesticide use or pollution. Meanwhile, the report says, only 20 percent of funds go toward low-tech practices with greater potential to cut pollution like cover cropping, field borders, filter strips, and residue management.

Awarding funds to these lower-cost, higher-impact practices would allow more farmers to take advantage of the programs, the report found. Currently, 60 percent of applicants are turned away due to lack of funds.

From 2009 to 2012 the NRCS earmarked $789 million to support conservation programs. Between 1997 and 2010, nearly 70 percent of all EQIP funds were spent on irrigation structures and 25 percent were used to purchase irrigation equipment in California.

“In general,” report author Kari Hamerschlag wrote, “the limited use of high-impact and low-cost management and vegetative practices and the over-emphasis on lower impact and much more expensive structures and equipment raise serious doubts about how effective these investments will be in addressing the full spectrum of nutrient contamination.”

The report offers a wide range of recommendations including supporting farmers who would use the funds for more cost effective practices.

California’s Water Board, which is in the process of tightening its regulations to address the state’s water pollution crisis, welcomed the report.

“It dovetails very nicely,” said Johnny Gonzales, irrigated lands regulatory program manager for the state Water Board. “We’re following the same course.”

NRCS spokesperson Anita Brown, who acknowledged she had little time to analyze the report, stood by her agency’s funding of “vital albeit costly” irrigation hardware.

“One of the key goals of EQIP is to help farmers comply with environmental regulation such as irrigated lands requirement that permits no drainage water to leave a farmer’s property,” she wrote in a statement to the Food & Environment Reporting Network. “Irrigation hardware is essential for most to comply with this law.”

She also said some of EWG’s analysis was taken out of context.

“Focusing on the amount spent on any one conservation goal is prone to misleading conclusions since conservation practices interact and combine in ways that are not simply additive, and contributions attributable to any one practice are very site dependent,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, defended the use of the conservation programs.

“The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program have been especially helpful to family farmers and ranchers, as they continue to adapt to ever-changing understandings of farm practices and the environment,” he said in a written statement. “Some practices and technologies may not be cost-effective to farmers who compete in the world market, but EQIP and AWEP help bridge the gap between cost and effectiveness.”

He added that because farmers face what he says are conflicting rules and regulations they are prevented from implementing some of the lower-cost, higher-impact practices cited in the report.