The USDA recently named 379 priority watersheds where they intend to help farmers improve water quality via focused financial and technical resources through the National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI).
NWQI was initiated in 2012 to address agricultural contributions to surface waters impaired by nutrients, sediment, and pathogens. Since then, the USDA says, priority watersheds across the country have seen improvements, including the delisting of once-impaired streams.
The technical and financial assistance from NRCS assists farmers and ranchers with implementing practices that avoid, control, and trap nutrients and sediment, which can negatively impact water quality. Practices include filter strips, cover crops and manure management, which promote soil health, reduce erosion and lessen nutrient runoff.
Dynamic no-till systems certainly accomplish all of those things. But it seems like every other month I find someone appearing to be in a position of authority or knowledge blaming no-till practices for watershed problems, including algae blooms.
The most recent National Geographic has an article that quotes a contributing writer — along with a colleague who is a photographer and film maker — about their work documenting the wonder and fragility of the Great Lakes. The conversation eventually drifts to algal blooms and Lake Erie and notes the Great Lakes have various pollution problems and invasive species— from zebra and quagga mussels to fertilizer runoff,” which is true.
“Researchers briefly thought the algal bloom problem was solved,” the article says. “From the 1950s to 1970s, algal blooms were a recurring issue in the Great Lakes until the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
“(Tim) Folger pointed to the no-till agriculture shift in the 1990s as the culprit for the return of algal blooms. He said it’s paradoxical because no-till agriculture is important to reduce topsoil erosion, but it also increases fertilizer runoff. Combine excess fertilizer with increased rainfall due to climate change, and the runoff has become a major problem.”
Even if you were to assume the answer is that easy, and no-till is the “culprit,” how much of a problem would we have now if farmers were still plowing and soil laden with fertilizer was washing into local rivers and lakes? Should we just stop no-tilling and using cover crops?
I’m going to submit to you that part of the problem is fertilizer application methods, rather than no-till — such as broadcasting nutrients on the soil surface at an inopportune time before heavy rains or snowmelt.
I find it odd that after no-till acres have increased from a few million in the early 1970s to 103 million acres now, and cover crops are being planted on at least 10 million acres annually, that agriculture is solely at fault.
For its part, the USDA says water quality is improving in some NWQI watersheds. State water-quality agency partners report that 27% of NWQI monitoring watersheds show an improvement in water quality in at least one of the NWQI-monitored pollutants (based on 2016 data).
Further, 81% of these improvements can be attributed to or associated with agricultural conservation practices implemented by farmers and ranchers, the agency says.
Since its launch, NWQI has helped producers implement conservation on over 960,000 acres; reduced sediment loss by almost 1 million tons; reduced phosphorous loss by 2.5 million pounds and reduced nitrogen loss by 11 million pounds, the USDA says.
If you’re a no-till, be proud of what you’re doing. Dragging chisel plows and cultivators out of the shed isn’t going to solve water quality issues in your area and it won’t enhance your budget or pocketbook either.