Are conservation dollars polluting our water?

by Alyssa Charney

Many conservation programs in the Farm Bill aim to help producers protect water quality from impairment from agricultural inputs. However, since 2002, funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) has been flowing to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are contaminating, rather than protecting, critical water resources. The 2014 Farm Bill failed to reform EQIP’s funding of these operations.

EQIP is a working lands conservation program that was established in the 1996 Farm Bill to allow agricultural and livestock operators to enroll in 5 to 10 year contracts to manage natural resource concerns. EQIP provides financial and technical assistance to producers to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits. Common practices include planting cover crops to prevent erosion or installing fencings for grazing rotations.

Despite EQIP’s conservation objectives, nearly 40 percent of the program’s funds currently go to CAFOs for waste storage facilities and irrigation equipment installation. And yet even with EQIP funding, CAFOs do not effectively manage the large amount of waste they produce.

Animal manure and urine from CAFOs are funneled into and stored in massive waste lagoons, which often overflow, leak, or break and send dangerous contaminants into water supplies. These lagoons are frequently located within floodplains on aquifers, directly contaminating the drinking water supply. Additionally, liquid manure stored in the lagoons is sprayed onto cropland or pastures through large sprinkler irrigation systems that over apply waste to levels that exceed what is needed to maintain soil fertility. Liquid waste from the sprayfields runs off into streams, lakes, rivers, and estuaries.

Manure lagoon (Source: USDA).

Manure lagoon (Source: USDA).

The lagoons and irrigation pivots used by CAFOs are sucking up EQIP funding in the name of environmental conservation.

However, this wasn’t always the case. Between 1996 and 2002 CAFOs were ineligible to receive EQIP funding. But in response to a massive lobbying campaign from corporate meat industry interests, the 2002 Farm Bill increased the EQIP payment limit from $50,000 to $300,000 and CAFOs were deemed eligible. Funding priorities also shifted to favor projects with the greatest pollution potential instead of the most cost-efficient applications, again favoring CAFOs over small and midsized farms that wish to integrate pollution preventing practices on their operations.

Even with the EQIP funding CAFOs receive, CAFOs do not effectively manage the massive amounts of waste they produce.

Reforming EQIP to prevent CAFOs from receiving funds would have provided more needed support to farmers who are safeguarding, rather than further damaging, natural resources. Unfortunately, the 2014 Farm Bill not only failed to decrease the payment limit for EQIP, but it actually increased that limit from $300,000 to $450,000 per contract. CAFOs remain eligible and polluting livestock operations can continue to receive a disproportionate share of EQIP funding.

Public health and sustainable agriculture advocates have called for a variety of reforms to address the disproportionate share of EQIP funding that CAFOs receive.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)’s platform proposed that the Farm Bill should reduce the program-wide payment limit for EQIP from $300,000 to $200,00 per contract, as the average contract today is still smaller than the program’s original payment limit of $50,000, and CAFO applications receive larger contracts. NSAC added that if Congress does continue to fund CAFOs through EQIP, it should at least eliminate payments made to any new or expanding operations and to those located within flood plains.

Similarly, the Union of Concerned Scientists has called for the elimination of the waste-management subsidies that CAFOs receive under EQIP in order to provide more needed support to small and mid-sized farms. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has also identified the effects of CAFOs on human health and the environment as reason to reform EQIP to prohibit CAFOs from receiving funding.

And the American Public Health Association (APHA) has pointed to the dangers that CAFOs present to contaminated drinking water and called for a moratorium on new operations. APHA cited a number of water-related health concerns including the contamination of drinking water with pathogens from manure.

What’s next?

While the Farm Bill fails to provide much needed reform to CAFOs’ EQIP eligibility at the federal level, state technical committees can play a significant role in determining which EQIP applications are or are not funded. The technical committees can, and should, advise state conservationists to restructure the way NRCS ranks applications, in such a way as to favor sustainable practices rather than those specific to CAFO waste management. Funding manure lagoons or pivot irrigation equipment for CAFOs should be especially discouraged.

States should not sit around and wait another five (or more) years for Farm Bill reform to stop wasting conservation dollars on water polluting CAFOs. The time for a shift in EQIP funding priorities is now.

Alyssa Charney is a first year AFE/MPH student. Also in the WSSS program, she’s excited about the water that helps grow the food we eat and the water that hydrates her as she gets ready to run the Boston Marathon. She grew up on the east coast, but loves Montana’s mountains that were home before arriving at Friedman. Alyssa can be reached at alyssa.charney@tufts.edu.

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