By Emily Folk
Agriculture and water quality are inherently linked, and farmers and ranchers manage 70 percent of the world’s fresh water, according to the American Farmland Trust.
Water is a vital resource for farmers, and farming activities have a substantial effect on water quality. Farms impact water quality in a variety of ways, namely due to the pollutants that can run off into waterways with rain. These pollutants come from fertilizers, animal waste and soil erosion.
Fertilizers and animal waste can introduce excessive levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, into waters. These nutrients can cause algae blooms, which deplete oxygen from the water, suffocating fish and other marine life.
Animal waste may also introduce toxic fecal coliforms to the water, and pesticides can introduce toxins as well. High levels of sediment caused by erosion make drinking water treatment more challenging and can impact marine life.
Here's why these water quality issues should matter to farmers.
1. Water for Crops and Livestock
Farmers, of course, need water for their crops and livestock. It’s a vital input for all farms. Although it would take some time for farmers to feel severe impacts from damaged water quality, if it becomes too degraded, the results could be disastrous for farmers. For this reason, it’s in farmers’ own economic interest to protect water quality.
2. Drinking Water
Pollutants in water can also reduce the quality of drinking water in an area, potentially making it unsafe to consume. Runoff from agriculture tends to affect low-income rural communities the most. If farmers or their neighbors get their water from wells, their drinking water is especially susceptible to runoff pollution.
3. Environmental Impacts
Many of the same pollutants that can impact water quality near farms can also worsen broader climate problems. Excess nutrients that end up in water or evaporate into the atmosphere may contribute to climate change, acid rain and hypoxia in oceans.
Acid rain can harm plants directly and degrade soil quality, decreasing yield. Climate change is also creating various challenges for farmers, including droughts.
4. Government Force
Many farmers want to avoid heavy government involvement in their operations. As of yet, the government has mostly dealt with agriculture’s impact on water quality by providing best practices and offer incentives to farmers who follow them. The 2015 Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS, would have given the government more authority over small waterways, but the Trump administration has delayed the rule for two years.
If water quality continues to degrade, farmers may, however, eventually be met with increased government control over their operations.
What Farmers Can Do
By changing their farming practices, farmers can substantially reduce the damage that their operations do to water quality. Many farmers have already begun taking some of these steps and have started to see results.
- Strategies for fertilizer use: Strategies from protecting water include changes to the way farmers use fertilizers. To prevent runoff, farmers can reduce the amount they use and only apply it at the proper times of the year. Precision agriculture involves the use of technologies that enable farmers to apply just the right amount of fertilizer to exactly the right spot, leaving no excess to run into waterways.
- Use of cover crops: Cover crops, such as certain grasses and grains, can also prevent runoff by absorbing excess nutrients and can reduce soil erosion as well. Employing conservation tillage also lessens both runoff and erosion.
- Strategies for manure management: Changes in the way farms manage manure can also help. Rather than think of manure as animal waste, if farms think of it as a resource due to the nutrients it can provide plants, the may manage it better. Farms can compost it or use it as fertilizer and take steps to prevent it from running into waterways.
- Restricting animal access to water bodies: Restricting animals’ access to water such as ponds and streams can also prevent manure from entering them as well as reduce soil erosion on the banks of these small waterways.
- Planting buffers: Additionally, farmers can plant a buffer of grasses, shrubs and trees along bodies of water. These buffers absorb nutrients and filter them from rainwater, reducing waterway pollution.
Farms need good water quality to operate, and agriculture has a significant impact on water quality. That is why water quality matters to farmers. It’s a resource they need, and they have the power to protect it.
About the author: Emily is a sustainability writer and avid gardener. You can read more of her work on her site, Conservation Folks, where she writes about helping tomorrow’s planet today.