Protecting Water Quality from Agricultural Runoff

United States Environmental Protection Agency

The United States has more than 330 million acres of agricultural land that produce an abundant supply of food and other products. American agriculture is noted worldwide for its high productivity, quality, and efficiency in delivering goods to the consumer. When improperly managed however, activities from working farms and ranches can affect water quality. In the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, states reported that agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and lakes, the second largest source of impairments to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of surveyed estuaries and ground water. Agricultural activities that cause NPS pollution include poorly located or managed animal feeding operations; overgrazing; plowing too often or at the wrong time; and improper, excessive, or poorly timed application of pesticides, irrigation water, and fertilizer. Pollutants that result from farming and ranching include sediment, nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, metals, and salts. Impacts from agricultural activities on surface water and ground water can be minimized by using management practices that are adapted to local conditions. Many practices designed to reduce pollution also increase productivity and save farmers and ranchers money in the long run. There are many government programs available to help farmers and ranchers design and pay for management approaches to prevent and control NPS pollution. For example, over 40 percent of section 319 Clean Water Act grants have been used to control NPS pollution from working farms and ranches. Also, many programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and by states provide cost-share, technical assistance, and economic incentives to implement NPS pollution management practices. Many local organizations and individuals have come together to help create regional support networks to adopt technologies and practices to eliminate or reduce water quality impacts caused by agricultural activities.