National Agricultural Library
Water Quality Information Center Masthead
 Home|About the Water Quality Information Center|Databases|Enviro-News|News and Events|Publications|Help|Contact Us|En Español
 Search the Water Quality Information Center
Search all of the United States Department of Agriculture
Advanced search
Search tips
Browse by subject
Agricultural Environmental Management
Educational Materials
Regional Information
Social and Legal Issues
Tools and Guides
Water Availability
Water Quality
You are here: Home / About WQIC / Working Group on Water Resources / Water Quality: A Report of Progress / USDA's Water Quality Program: Lessons Learned  Printer Friendly Page
About the Water Quality Information Center
Working Group on Water Resources

Water Quality: A Report of Progress

Published Sep 1997

USDA's Water Quality Program: Lessons Learned

Agricultural production often emits pollutants that affect the quality of water resources and impose costs on water users. In 1994 the Environmental Protection Agency reported that agriculture is the leading source of impairment in the Nation's rivers and lakes, and a major source of impairment to estuaries. Agriculture is also an important source of contaminants in some aquifers. The important agricultural pollutants that have been found in water resources include sediment, nutrients, pesticides, salts (from irrigation) and pathogens (from animal waste).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented several programs for reducing agricultural nonpoint source pollution. These programs rely on voluntary participation by farmers, who are provided education as well as technical and financial assistance for adopting alternative management practices.

In 1990, USDA made a commitment to protect the Nation's waters from contamination by agricultural chemicals and waste products by establishing the Water Quality Program (WQP). This program builds upon past programs such as the Model Implementation Program of the 1970's and the Rural Clean Water Program and Water Quality Special Projects of the 1980's. The Water Quality Program uses education, technical assistance, financial assistance, and research to promote the adoption of alternative management practices for protecting water resources. The WQP strived to: (a) determine the precise nature of the relationship between agricultural activities and water quality; and (b) develop and induce the voluntary adoption of technically and economically effective agrichemical management and agricultural production strategies that protect the beneficial uses of ground and surface water quality.

Experience with these programs has highlighted 10 lessons for enhancing the probability that water quality programs achieve their goals in a cost-effective manner.

1. Cost-effectiveness is enhanced when program activities are targeted to watersheds where agriculture is the primary source of a water quality impairment.

Maximizing program benefits depends on identifying those watersheds where changing farm management strategies will improve water quality, and where the demand for water quality is highest. Watersheds with water quality problems differ greatly in the improvements that can be achieved through changes in agricultural management practices and in the economic benefits of these improvements. Agriculture may not be the primary source of pollutants in an impaired watershed, limiting the degree to which agricultural nonpoint source pollution programs can improve water quality. Point sources, urban runoff, and even natural sources may predominate. The demand for water quality may be very low in some watersheds, due to small population, low economic activity, or an abundance of alternate, high-quality water resources. While water quality may be degraded from the standpoint of aquatic life, scarce program dollars are better spent by first concentrating on those watersheds where the economic benefits from improvements are greatest.

Program cost-effectiveness is enhanced when critical areas for priority treatment within watersheds are identified. Not all farms are the same, differing in proximity to water resources, topography, soils, and management practices. Identifying those critical areas that are likely to contribute disproportionately to a water quality problem greatly increases the effectiveness of assistance.

Identifying critical areas for treatment may be difficult because of the diffuse nature of nonpoint source pollution. However, local personnel may be able to identify such areas based on knowledge of local production practices and resources. Models can also be used to identify critical areas.

2. Voluntary programs are likely to be successful when the alternative practices generate higher returns.

The long-term success of voluntary programs depends on farmers continuing to use new practices after assistance ends. USDA assistance for new practices has typically extended only 1 to 5 years, so practices must be attractive over the long term. The condition that practices both increase net returns and protect the environment limits the set of practices available to address a problem in any project, and on any farm. Some of the practices that protect water quality and that have been shown to be economically attractive include conservation tillage, nutrient management, irrigation water management, and integrated pest management. However, the set of practices that satisfy these conditions for any particular farmer is frequently unknown by program managers.

3. Voluntary programs are likely to be most successful in areas where farmers recognize that agriculture contributes to severe local or on-farm pollution problems such as groundwater impairment.

One of the most important goals of project staff is to convince farmers that the water quality problems in the project are real, and that they are part of the solution. While farmers value environmental quality, they often do not perceive that their actions are affecting local water quality. If farmers perceive a need to alter production practices for reasons other than enhanced profits, the set of practices they might be willing to adopt is increased. Farmers who display some degree of stewardship or altruism towards the environment may be willing to adopt practices that increase their risk or decrease their profits, as long as the local environment benefits and the farm remains financially viable.

4. Flexible financial assistance is more efficient than fixed rates and limited practices.

The availability of financial assistance is a very important part of a successful voluntary program. Even when practices are profitable, constraints to adoption due to increased risk, inexperience with the practice, and other management factors may prevent a farmer from adopting the practice. Financial assistance covers at least part of the risk to farmers of economic losses over the adjustment period, but as currently offered, does not extend over the long term.

A financial assistance program should be flexible in terms of incentive levels and in the practices eligible for assistance. Ideally, the level of assistance for a practice should reflect the expected environmental benefits. This information is often lacking. An alternative strategy is to set rates at levels sufficient to ensure the adoption of practices believed necessary to meet project goals. This rate varies between farmers. Cost-effectiveness is enhanced when differences in the financial and risk characteristics of farmers are considered when offering financial assistance. The determination of eligible practices needs to be made at the project level, with national headquarters playing an oversight role.

5. Project success is enhanced when educational, technical, and financial assistance are offered in a coordinated fashion.

Projects that offer education, technical assistance, and financial assistance have the best chance of promoting alternative production practices. There are a number of constraints to farmers adopting alternative management practices. Not all can be addressed by a single type of assistance. Education can inform producers about new and innovative practices, reduce the cost of obtaining information about practices, and clarify what may be inconsistent and conflicting information about a new practice. Technical assistance reduces a farmer's cost of obtaining information about a practice, helps provide managerial skill that may be lacking, and enables the producer to handle increasingly complex practices. Financial assistance helps overcome a short planning horizon, allows the farmer to accept greater risk over the short run (during the learning phase), and provides an incentive to try something that may be seen as non traditional.

Not all farmers require the full spectrum of assistance, and improve targeting criteria for future projects. but it should be made available since project staff cannot determine a priori what types of assistance will be for evaluating whether a water quality project needed. Even when regulations provide the impetus for adopting alternative management practices, education and technical assistance are needed to ensure that the new practices are used properly.

6. Local research on the economic and physical performance of recommended practices can improve practice adoption.

Farmers are skeptical of practices that do not have a local history of use. This becomes a problem when new and innovative practices are promoted to address a local water quality problem. Where local experience is lacking, field testing and demonstrations of new practices should be implemented to investigate the economic, environmental, and agronomic features of promoted practices.

7. Interaction with non-USDA agencies, organizations, and local businesses within a watershed is important.

Local environmental and resource districts such as soil and water conservation districts, drainage districts, irrigation districts, and natural resource districts may be operating in project areas. These groups and local business and environmental groups may have some interest in water quality issues. Involving these stakeholders early in project planning would minimize future conflicts, and may bring in additional resources and expertise. Involving local stakeholders has been a particular strength of Water Quality Program projects.

8. More attention to water quality monitoring and project evaluation could help determine the cost-effectiveness of alternative practices and assist in the development of targeting strategies.

Ongoing performance evaluations should be an integral part of every project. Progress assessment can identify problem areas in time for corrective action, and improve targeting criteria for future projects. Water quality monitoring is the most defensible means for evaluating whether a water quality program must establish a baseline of water quality conditions and be maintained for long enough to account for the lags in the movement of agricultural pollutants and natural fluctuations in weather.

An acceptable alternative to monitoring may be water quality modeling. A number of models that can predict pollutant loadings at the watershed level have become available. Models are useful when prolonged lags in observable water quality improvements are expected. In addition, models can be used to identify critical areas within watersheds and to establish project implementation goals. A drawback of models is that they must be carefully calibrated to local conditions.

In addition to water quality monitoring, an effective mechanism for tracking changes in crop management in the project area must be implemented. Such information enables interim assessments of whether program goals are being achieved, and where and what types of additional assistance might be needed. Just as for water quality, a land management baseline must be established. In order to properly evaluate what is happening in a watershed, it is also necessary to track management changes on those fields not receiving assistance.

9. Water quality programs need to have a long-term focus.

The physical processes that link production practices to water quality, and the socioeconomic processes that characterize adoption can both be of long duration. The adoption process, from first learning about a practice through implementation, can take years. While assistance is designed to speed up this process, overall progress can still be slow. Therefore, adequate resources must be made available for an extended period of time to ensure successful completion of the project.

The physical processes that connect on-field management changes to downstream changes in water quality also may take years, and even decades. Water quality monitoring should be maintained beyond the time assistance ends, and realistic expectations should be set as to when observed improvements in water quality are likely to be seen. Adequate time must also be set aside for pre-implementation planning, including the establishment of baselines and conducting field research on the performance characteristics of alternative practices. Water Quality Program projects were set up as 5-year projects. This time was found to be inadequate, and most projects have been extended for an additional 3 years.

10. Voluntary programs are enhanced if firm but flexible regulations are in the background.

Despite the onerousness of regulations to many in the farm community, they can play an important role in promoting alternative production practices without placing overly burdensome costs on farmers. Voluntary approaches supported by regulatory capabilities may be the most effective means of reducing pollution from agricultural sources. Regulations clarify goals, and provide impetus for farmers to search for alternatives that may in fact maintain or even enhance net returns. Regulations may even be favored by farmers if the efforts of conscientious farmers are recognized and "bad actors" are punished.

The lessons learned from the WQP and past USDA water quality programs provide important guidance for future programs. The new Enviromental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) that was established in the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform (FAIR) Act of 1996 will continue the course set by the Water Quality Program. This Act gives USDA a 17-year commitment for providing education, technical, and financial assistance in targeted watershed projects. Many of the recommendations outlined above were incorporated in the enabling legislation, including targeting, increased and flexible financial assistance, a full range of education, technical, and financial assistance, and an emphasis on evaluation and cost effectiveness.

The experience and knowledge from the Water Quality Program will improve the performance of water quality projects based on voluntary adoption of alternative management practices. While the voluntary approach probably cannot by itself achieve all national water quality objectives, it can be a valuable tool to State and Federal water quality protection programs.

Last Modified: Feb 25, 2011

 WQIC Home | NAL Home | USDA | AgNIC | Agricultural Research Service | | Policies and Links | Site Map
FOIA | Accessibility Statement | Privacy Policy | Non-Discrimination Statement | Information Quality | | White House