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Water and Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) works with agricultural producers to minimize water quality and quantity issues by using best management practices. A clean and plentiful water supply is essential for productive agriculture to supply the public with adequate food and fiber. But agriculture, like other land uses, can sometimes negatively affect water quality.

Common Causes of Poor Water Quality:

  • Soil erosion
  • Manure runoff
  • Over-application of nitrogen fertilizer
  • Pollutants
  • Excess phosphorus

These sources can deliver pollution to streams, rivers, and lakes, and may contaminate groundwater with nitrate. They can also harm drinking water supplies, aquatic ecosystems, and the recreational uses of water bodies.

Crops, livestock, and poultry operations require adequate water for on-farm uses. Increasingly, competition from other sectors of society impacts the availability of clean water. Municipalities, industries, and the natural environment all have claims on the available water. Droughts make water even more precious.

Water and agriculture involve two key interrelated issues:

  • Water quality is a measure of the suitability of water for a particular use based on selected physical, chemical, or biological characteristics. In agriculture, water must be of suitable quality to irrigate crops or provide drinking water for livestock. Agricultural operations can also negatively affect water quality.
  • Water quantity refers to the availability or use of water. Farms need sufficient water to grow crops and raise livestock. Overuse of water by agriculture can lead to less availability for other uses.
  • Compliance with Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) and Wetland Conservation (WC) provisions of the Farm Bill are required for participation in most USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. These provisions place restrictions on the planting of an agricultural commodity on highly erodible land or wetlands. Further, they prohibit the conversion of a wetland to make possible the production of an agricultural commodity.

    The 2014 Farm Bill adds premium assistance for crop insurance as a benefit subject to compliance with HELC and WC provisions.  The FSA makes HELC/WC eligibility determinations for crop insurance participants based on NRCS technical determinations of HELC/WC compliance.

    Answer adapted from What’s in the 2014 Farm Bill for Farm Service Agency Customers?

  • NRCS is not a regulatory agency and does not enforce environmental laws or regulations. NRCS provides technical and financial assistance so farmers and ranchers can proactively identify potential environmental issues and avoid violating any laws or regulations. NRCS must ensure it does not assist clients in violating any environmental requirements. For example, obtaining a required permit issued by a non-USDA agency may be a condition of receiving NRCS financial assistance.

    Answer adapted from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service National Environmental Policy.


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