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WASHINGTON’S AGRICULTURE INDUSTRY AND WATER QUALITY

In the early 1970's, reports were all too frequent of fish dying in our rivers and streams, lakes becoming choked with algae, and beaches closing because of pollution. For almost the past 30 years since the advent of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act), federal and state governments have been combating water quality pollution problems in this country. However, the primary focus over these years has been to address "point" source pollution such as a pipe discharging factory chemical waste, even though it is estimated over 80% of our water quality pollution problems are the result of "nonpoint" source or also known as "polluted runoff."

Nonpoint source pollution is the result of many land-use activities: agricultural practices, forest practices, and urban stormwater runoff. However, even 25 years ago we recognized agricultural activities were the predominant contributor of nonpoint source pollution in both rivers and lakes throughout the country. In 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the principal sources of nonpoint pollution vary between the regions, "but agricultural sources are identified as the most pervasive nonpoint source in every region." In fact, "it is considered the most serious cause in most of the EPA Regions." Report to Congress: Nonpoint Source Pollution in the U.S., U.S. EPA, January 1984.

Agricultural pollution can result from animal waste; soil erosion from cropland overgrazing; irrigation return flows; and pesticide and fertilizer application. In 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that agricultural practices accounted for 64% of impacted river miles, 57% of impacted lake acres, and nineteen 19% of impacted estuary square miles throughout this nation. America’s Clean Water, the States’ Evaluation of Progress, 1972-1982, EPA. Animal feedlots alone are estimated to adversely impact 16% of water that are impaired from agricultural practices.

Approximately 130 times more animal manure is produced than human waster --- five tons for every person in the United States. For example, the 1,600 dairies in California’s Central Valley produce more waste than a city of 21 million people and annual production of 600 million chickens on the Delmarva Peninsula leaves behind as much nitrogen as a city of nearly 500,000 people. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Environment and Energy Weekly, March 23, 1998.

More obviously dangerous, in 1995 in North Carolina, 35 million gallons of animal waste were spilled, killing 10 million fish. In 1997, more than 40 animal waste spills were recorded in Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri, up from 20 in 1992. Also, in 1997, the toxic microbe Pfiesteria, whose increased presence in linked to excessive nutrients in water, killed about 30,000 fish in the Chesapeake Bay and some 450,000 in North Carolina. Major attacks by harmful microbes in the United States coastal and estuarial waters have doubled between 1972 and 1995, and excessive nutrients are the primary suspects. In the Gulf of Mexico, farm runoff, including animal waste, is linked to a "dead zone" of hypoxia (low oxygen) --- up to 7,000 square miles of water that cannot support most aquatic life. Environment and Energy Weekly, March 23, 1998, pp. 27.

Unfortunately, the facts are no better for Washington state. In 1989, the Department of Ecology reported that "little overall progress has been recorded in sustained water quality improvement" for the control of agricultural nonpoint source pollution. Again, agricultural practices were the single largest contributor to the impacts of our rivers, streams, and lakes. The Department of Ecology reported that agricultural practices accounted for 32% of nonpoint pollution of impacted river miles, 39% of impacted lake acres, and 18% and of impacted estuary square miles. Nonpoint Source Pollution Assessment and Management Program, DOE, October, 1989, 88-17.

Again, in 1996, the Department of Ecology assessed 456 rivers, streams, lake, and estuary segments. Agriculture accounted for over 63% of the identified impairment to river and stream segments, 45% of impacted lake acres, and seventeen percent 17% of impacted estuary square miles. Once again, agricultural practices were the primary source of pollution to our rivers, streams, and lakes. Department of Ecology Publication No. WQ-96-04.

Agriculture in Washington state is NOT a "Mom and Pop" operation. Agriculture is the one of the largest industries in Washington and represents about 20% of the gross state product at the retail level. Gross revenue from the agriculture industry is approximately a $5-$6 billion per year to Washington state. In 1995, the state’s farmers generated more than $5.83 billion in gross sales of farm commodities. Compared to the forest products industry which is regulated for the control and prevention of nonpoint source pollution:

  • There are 15,726,007 acres of private agricultural land compared to only 9,670,00 acres of private forest land. There are 1.6 times the amount of private agricultural land than private forest land;
  • There are only 30,264 farm owners compared to over 91,400 forest land owners. There are 1/3 fewer farm owners than forest land owners with almost twice the land ownership;
  • Regarding "large" land owners (1000-4999+ acres) -- Just over ten percent (10.5%) of the farmers own over eighty percent (80.2%) of the agricultural land base. Whereas, one-half percent (0.5%) of the foresters own over seventy percent (70.1%) of the private forest land.
  • On the other side of the spectrum regarding "small" land owners (1-49 acres) -- Under two percent (1.7%) of the agricultural land is owned by only fifty-one (51.3%) percent of the owners. Whereas, over eleven percent of foresters (11.4%) own over eighty-three percent (83.5%) of the private forest land. There are far fewer "small" farm owners (15,523) than private forest land owners (76,300) who are regulated under the Forest Practices Act.

In conclusion, agriculture, one of the largest industries in the state, has much fewer land owners and own much more land base which are subject to voluntary and subsidized programs to address water quality problems than private forest land owners who are subject to regulatory, cooperative, and voluntary programs. There is a real question of environmental and social equity between two similar nonpoint sources of pollution.

In Washington state, we have institutionalized several mechanisms to ensure personal responsibility in protecting our water resources from nonpoint sources of pollution. The Forest Practices Act was enacted in 1979 to regulate forest practices on state and private lands. The intent of this act is to ensure our public resources; fish, wildlife, and water are protected from forest practices. The Growth Management Act was enacted 1990 to address urbanization and other issues and is also intended to protect critical areas for fish, water, and wildlife. However, even though agricultural practices are the primary source of nonpoint source pollution in this state and throughout the nation, they have been exempted from those mechanisms that provide either direct or indirect protection of salmon habitat and water quality: Shorelines Management Act, State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), Growth Management Act (GMA), Clean Water Act, and from portions of Hydraulic Project Approval Act.

The management of the agricultural industry has historically been through voluntary, education, and research programs. To farmers, a voluntary program of education and research at the expense of water quality protection is preferred. The programs provide at least a cost-share through subsidization of the development of new farming practices and dissemination of information. Also, voluntary programs are most in line with farm policy over the past 50 years.

Millions have been provided to the agricultural community for these programs with little if any measurable benefit. In addition, the federal, state, and local governments provide billions of dollars of subsidizes to the agricultural community with little or no commensurate benefit to protection and restoration of our fish, water, and wildlife resources. From 1984-1995, the federal government has provided over $2.3 billion in subsidies to Washington farm sector. This is an average of $194.3 million per year to Washington farmers. Economic Indicators of the Farm Sector. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, state and local tax exemptions will provide approximately $652,914,000 for the 1995-1997 biennium to the agricultural community. This includes $415,795,000 of state tax and $237,119,000 local tax exemptions. Tax Exemptions 1996: A Study of Tax Exemptions, Exclusions, Deductions, Deferrals, Differential Rates and Credits for Major State and Local Taxes in Washington. Department of Revenue, December 1995. Therefore, the combination of average of federal subsidies and state and local tax exemptions to the Washington state farm sector for the 1995-1997 biennium is approximately $1,041,597,333,000!

Agriculture is the remaining major unregulated source of environmental -- primarily water -- pollutants. The Issues and the Policy: View from OMB, EPA Journal, vol. 17, No. 5, Nov/Dec 1991. The agricultural community has continually taken the approach of holding out for compensation and subsidization rather than taking action consistent with their responsibilities to the public. For any other sector of the economy, allocating the financial burden for prevention of contamination is an easily settled matter: The polluter pays and is compelled to do so through regulation. Society cannot continue with subsidization of the agricultural community without greater responsibility and accountability of their land and water management practices. The agricultural community must acknowledge and act upon the validity of concerns about water quality, fish habitat and costs associated with preventing their harm.

Although agriculture presents the most pervasive nonpoint source pollution problems, the Best Management Practices available for addressing agricultural nonpoint sources are generally known. Report to Congress, 1984. Reduction and prevention of agricultural nonpoint source pollution is achievable. We know what must be done; however, the problem is we are not making the agricultural community accountable for their actions and impacts to their neighbors, the public, and natural resources. For the billions of dollars provided to our Washington state farmers we should expect more than is currently provided in protection of our salmon and water resources.

 

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