Water Quality: A Report of Progress
Published Sep 1997
Water Quality Issues
This representation of the USDA's Water Quality Program does not begin to capture the totality of the Program, its interactions with other entities, or its efforts on behalf of both American agriculture and the environment.
A quick glance at the media reports of any week will reveal that the issues associated with water quality continue to capture the public interest. The press continues to report regularly on Ag-related water quality issues. Whether the specific topic is Cryptosporidium in public water supplies, Pfiesteria in tidal waters, or Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, agriculture is usually alleged to be a contributing (if not the major) factor.
The WGWQ provides a mechanism to respond to such challenges; to present a Departmental view, to communicate with both our traditional partners and with our environmental partners. The USDA's Water Quality Program continues to provide insight into the actions and reactions from both sectors, and into the nature and scope of the alleged agricultural contributions. More importantly, the existence of the WGWQ as a functioning entity sends a powerful message to both agriculturists and environmentalists--USDA is aware of, and concerned about, the need both to protect the Nation's water resources, and to do so in ways that do not unnecessarily handicap American farmers in the global marketplace.
The WGWQ was instrumental in the development of a positive, pro-active USDA response to the issue of Cryptosporidium, a major concern for public water supplies when the delivery system is under duress as many aging systems are, or may soon be. The outbreak of a major epidemic of Cryptosporidiosis in the Milwaukee area led to much concern about the source of the infection. While there were major problems with the water treatment mechanism during the time of the outbreak, there was considerable concern later about the sources of the infectious parasites. Popular opinion laid much of the blame on the presence of dairy farms in the watershed.
The WGWQ was able to focus USDA resources on the need for more research and education. Major increases in efforts to identify sources of the parasite were undertaken. To date, more than 70 species have been identified as vectors of Cryptosporidium parvum, the infectious parasite. The USDA also produced a technical videotape on Crytosporidium and cryptosporidiosis: The parasite and the disease. More than 600 copies have been distributed to water utilities and educational institutions worldwide. A second videotape is in process, to update the previous material.
Within the USDA, copies were distributed by the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS), the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (now FSA), and the Extension Service (now CSREES).
The WGWQ also contracted with Cornell University to produce a lay-language fact sheet on the same topic. The fact sheet has been delivered as camera ready copy to every State, via the Cooperative Extension System.
In August 1996, the issue of Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico was brought to the attention of USDA via a policy-level meeting organized by the EPA. This meeting presented information about the existence of an expanded area of oxygen-depleted water in the western Gulf of Mexico, related to discharge from the Mississippi River system, with serious implications about nitrate-nitrogen associated with Corn-Belt agriculture. It was determined that, while there were (are) no demonstrated cause-and-effect relationships between agriculture and the hypoxic area, there was "compelling evidence" that agriculture (specifically, USDA) should be involved in devising solutions to the problem.
The WGWQ was able to schedule a meeting of representatives from the North Central Region, held at the University of Minnesota, in September 1996. This meeting began the mobilization of a response to the Hypoxia challenge. Since then, a regional committee has been developed; several position/analysis papers have been produced, and the committee has met with many of the affected parties in a meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is sponsoring an international symposium on Hypoxia, to be held in Anaheim, California, in October 1997.
The WGWQ also has provided continuing input via the "Interim Working Group on Hypoxia" an interagency effort to coordinate efforts among several agencies, and has represented USDA interests in the process. The WGWQ also has represented USDA with a number of interested clientele groups, including: The Fertilizer Institute's Management Conference, Farmland Industries "AG 21" Program, The (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri) Farm Bureau Conference on Hypoxia.
Previous products of the WGWQ, notably the publications "Water Quality and Nitrate" and "Nitrate Occurrence in U.S. Waters," are relevant to the issue of Hypoxia. These publications have been widely distributed within both agricultural and environmental communities. While the specific issue of Hypoxia is new, the issue of nitrogen management in agriculture is not.
While it is likely that some, if not many, farmers can do a better job of managing nitrogen inputs for crop production, it is also important to note that rivers in the Midwest have long carried high loads of nitrate. Successful programs to reduce nitrogen inputs and loadings may well be masked by these indigenous loads, and by the long response times for soil equilibria.
The WGWQ collaborates with other departments and agencies to further the programs in water quality on both national and international bases. These include:
- Joint sponsorship with USGS and the American Institute of Hydrology, of major international conferences on water issues. These include most republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States (former components of the USSR). Conferences have been held in Washington, DC (May 1993); and in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (September 1996). A third one is in planning for 1999.
- Joint sponsorship with EPA and the American Water Works Association, of the first international conference on cryptosporidium. The initial conference was held in Newport Beach, California (March 1997).
- Joint sponsorship, with the EPA and the International Association for Water Quality, international conferences on "diffuse pollution." Conferences have been held in Chicago (September 1993), and Prague, Czech republic (August 1995). A third meeting is being planned for Edinburgh, Scotland (September 1998).
The WGWQ continues to be involved in a wide range of activities that demonstrate USDA's concern about the quality of the Nation's waters, and about any agricultural contribution to either their quality or their degradation. The WGWQ provides a continuing mechanism to interact with Federal agencies, commodity organizations, and environmental organizations in the identification of problems, the search for solutions, and the development of programs to effect the voluntary adoption of appropriate practices by farmers to protect or enhance the quality of the Nation's waters. As was stated in the Preface, the WGWQ's very existence is a powerful message to both communities that USDA is aware of, and concerned about, the need to protect water quality without unnecessarily handicapping American farmers in the global marketplace.