Foul Water or Foul Science? The EPA Targets America’s Farms


Next up in the regulatory bulls-eye: American agri-culture.  Washington’s tool to expand its scope over this sector of the economy comes in the form of a rule by the Environmental Protection Agency to revise its Total Maximum Daily Load program, which is currently making its way through the review process.  The EPA is pressing its efforts to regulate farms based on estimates that a colossal 70 percent of water pollution in the United States is due to agriculture.  But significant questions remain about the true state of the nation’s water and whether agriculture is indeed as significant a contributor as the EPA contends.


Despite spending more than $541 billion on water pollution control since the enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act, the state of the nation’s water quality remains largely unknown.  The pollution coming from pipes¾point sources¾associated with wastewater treatment and industrial processes is monitored and reported, but there is a lack of good information on runoff from farms.


By law, states must report water quality conditions to Congress, resulting in the National Water Quality Inventory (NWQI).  But the NWQI provides only a snapshot of water quality, because most of the nation’s water has not been tested. In 1996, the NWQI had tested only 19 percent of rivers and streams, 40 percent of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, and 72 percent of estuaries.  A General Accounting Office representative recently testified that only six out of the 50 states have the data needed to fully assess their waters.


For the waters that have been tested, less than 40 percent fall into the category of “impaired,” which means the water does not support at least one of nine different uses, such as a supply of drinking water.  However, the EPA notes that data “may not represent general conditions in the nation’s total waters because states…often focus on surveying [water bodies] with suspected pollution problems in order to direct scarce resources to areas that could pose the greatest risk.” Consequently, water assessments give undue weight to hot spots where known water pollution occurs.


Moreover, surface runoff is difficult to measure for a number of reasons.  First, it’s diffuse and can originate from different sources, such as farms, driveways, and rooftops.  Second, the primary surface-runoff pollutants¾phosphorous and nitrogen¾occur naturally in the environment.  Without sufficient monitoring it’s difficult to tell whether these pollutants are coming from a farm or from another source.


Agricultural pollution is actually less than what the EPA claims.  When the stream miles the EPA claims agriculture has impaired are divided by the total US stream miles, those polluted by agriculture represent only 4.8 percent of the total.


Or, if one divides EPA’s “agriculturally polluted” miles by the total assessed stream miles (the total miles actually examined), only 25 percent are impaired by agriculture.  By these measures, agriculture contributes somewhere between 4 and 25 percent, not the 70 percent the EPA claims.


The EPA’s claim is even more questionable when one considers that estimates of water quality are typically made according to “best professional judgment” (defined as using the best available information), watershed maps, and little or no actual monitoring.  According to the latest NWQI, states deriving more than 50 percent of their data in this way reported that 46 percent of their stream miles have been impaired because of agriculture.  By contrast, in states like Michigan where all stream miles are directly monitored, only 13 percent of stream miles showed up as impaired due to agriculture.


Inadequate or scientifically-flawed data is no ground upon which to build a regulatory system.  When the EPA issues regulations based upon shoddy science, agricultural communities suffer unjust consequences.  The Economic Research Service, for instance, estimates that there are about 450,000 livestock operations nationwide, all of which could be subject to the EPA’s new regulation.


But the system can be improved.  Among other things, lawmakers at state and federal levels should demand regulatory decisions be based on sound science, and all scientific claims be peer reviewed (examined in depth by outside scientific experts) prior to drafting rules and regulations. Finally, the EPA should make any scientific studies paid for with federal grants accessible to anyone who requests the information.  Without sound science, farmers and consumers of agricultural products will foot the bill for dubious regulations.


Jefferson G. Edgens, PhD, teaches at the University of Kentucky and is an adjunct scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. David W. Riggs, PhD, ([email protected]) is Director of Land & Natural Resource Policy at CEI.