Water district officials see added pressure to improve farms Independent agricultural consultants were urged to take the lead in improving the quality of water leaving Mid-South farms - before the federal government wades into the issue.

The action was suggested by Dean Pennington, executive director of the Yazoo Delta Water Management District, Stoneville, Miss., and David Bennett, Georgia Soil And Water Conservation, Athens, Ga., during the 2001 annual meeting of the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants in Orlando.

"The environmental changes that are coming are real," Pennington told consultants. "Recent elections may soften things a little bit, but I think there's going to more and more pressure in agriculture to make improvements in how farmers manage their farms."

"Ag consultants are going to be key to helping producers," Bennett added. "You know how to talk the language, you know ag, you have the expertise."

Bennett and Pennington were referring to the growing concern in agriculture over the implementation of TMDLs, or total maximum daily load requirements.

The objective of the TMDL process is to systematically identify impaired and threatened water bodies and pollutants that are the cause of the impairment, establish a strategy for correcting the impairment, eliminate the threat and restore the water quality. TMDLs, a part of the 1972 Clean Water Act, will set load limitations on dissolved oxygen, bacteria, pH, temperature and 129 chemicals.

Currently, EPA and each state environmental quality office is under a court order to provide a list of impaired waterbodies, called a 303d list, and begin the process of establishing TMDLs.

"This could be serious," Bennett said. "Every non-point source pollutant going into these streams will be assigned a loading production factor. If the stream is not meeting the TMDL guidelines, they'll look at agriculture and everything that's going into that stream. Agriculture is going to have to take a big hit on everything that's going into that stream or river."

Pennington said everyone is supportive of improving water quality in the United States, "but there's a lot of devil in the details."

One problem that has surfaced already is the lack of consistency in how states compile their 303d lists. Pennington pointed out that several rivers and streams that flow across contiguous states are considered impaired in one state but not in others.

For example, Alabama has few impaired waterways compared to Mississippi, which has the most mileage of impaired waterways of any state. "So right now, I don't think we're getting an honest evaluation because of a quirk in the way the 303d lists are set up."

In the long term, Pennington believes that the trend would probably be that states like Alabama would eventually have to add more rivers to their list rather than Mississippi having to take streams off the list.

The important thing to remember is that for now agriculture is not regulated by TMDLs, noted Pennington. "But if voluntary programs aren't demonstrated to meet the goals of improving water quality, then involuntary, regulatory programs will be implemented instead."

This could the beginning of a much more insidious problem, according to Pennington. "You're looking at water quality as a back door into federal land management of your property. So when we talk about sedimentation plans, we don't want that work done by EPA, or any more work than is necessary done by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in our state. Those are great folks down there, but what they know about agriculture and farming is based on computer models.

"We need to get down to the people who are actually on the land, some water conservation districts, the landowner, small local groups together to help develop these plans to solve the problems."

A TMDL plan might affect or require: crop selection, fertility programs, irrigation, buffer strips, conservation practices, winter tillage, water control structures to control runoff on land and how much fertilizer and pesticides are used.

Another issue which is not directly related to TMDLs, but which could speed up the efforts toward clean water is the hypoxia problem in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Pennington. "Right now, EPA is proposing that over the next 15 years, we reduce nitrogen fertilizer use by 30-40 percent to address that problem." (Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico is thought to be the result of excessive nutrient deposition by the Mississippi River leading to reduced oxygen content of the waterbody).

On the other hand, EPA is starting to realize that pesticides are not as big a problem as once thought, according to Pennington. "They're a sexy problem, something for people to get excited about. But the real problem has more to do with sediment."

Pennington added, "There is also the possibility built into the federal requirements that if one person is doing more than what is required to meet standards, that he can in effect sell the excess benefits he's created to someone who is not doing as well. The Clean Water Act does not require everybody to do the same thing. You just need to get the total load down to an acceptable level. It could actually be an economic investment for some people."

Some assistance funds could be available through EPA's 319 and non-point source programs, but most of if will likely come through the Natural Resources Conservation Service through existing WRP programs and others.

Important elements of a TMDL plan include: - name and location of the impaired waterway;

- pollutants, for example, sediment, pesticide, dissolved oxygen;

- the source of the pollution - a city, agriculture, etc.;

- amount pollutants should be reduced;

- a margin of safety;

- an allowance of how a stream may change under future growth;

- an implementation plan for improving water quality;

- who will develop the plan.

A much stricter plan for improving water quality could be the implementation of a comprehensive nutrient management plan. This program might be part of any mandatory plan for row crop farms. Components of a NMP, which are not yet mandatory on row crop operations, include:

- identification of the existing and potential natural resource concerns;

- existing conservation plans;

- must address water quality and soil erosion criteria and meet NRCS conservation practice criteria;

- must have all the necessary state and federal permits;

- operator or manager certification;

- documentation like aerial maps showing buffers, setbacks and waterways;

- soils maps; proposed conservation practices to help meet water quality requirements;

- identification of sensitive areas;

- property boundaries; crop types and sequences; current soil test results;

- form, source, map, timing and method of application of nutrients;

- other information that may be required by new legislation or federal and state laws.