Restoring Our Rivers

Duane Hovorka, IWLA Agriculture Program Director
iStock_hands in water

John Gibson operates Downriver Canoe Company on the Shenandoah River in Virginia. Gibson’s customers come from all over the world to experience the peaceful beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, and they expect that the water will be as safe as it is beautiful.

“Water quality is my focus since I work on the river every day,” says Gibson. “The water quality can be dramatically affected by farms, in that too many nutrients getting into the river cause excess algae.”

Excess algae isn’t the only pollutant in America’s rivers. E coli bacteria from manure can sicken people. Pesticides and other farm chemicals can kill fish and aquatic plants. Sediment can turn the water from clear to muddy overnight.

More than 45 years after the Clean Water Act set a goal of making America’s rivers and lakes fishable and swimmable again, more than half of America’s waters fail to meet basic water quality standards.

The biggest threat to water quality in America is polluted runoff of pesticides, nutrients, sediment and livestock waste from farms into our rivers, lakes and wetlands. Thanks to the Clean Water Act and funding to modernize municipal systems that treat our wastewater, industrial pollution into our waterways has dropped substantially.

But a huge challenge remains: Reducing runoff from the 2 million farms and livestock operations that produce crops and livestock on 40% of the land in America.

All across America, rivers, lakes and wetlands suffer from the runoff of fertilizers, pesticides, and manure, and downstream communities have to deal with the pollution to provide safe clean drinking water.

Bill Stowe of Des Moines Water Works knows how important clean water is. “I can go on a gluten-free diet, I can go on a sugar-free diet, I can go on a starch-free diet” says Stowe, but “I can’t, or you can’t, go on a water-free diet.” Des Moines, like many other communities, is spending more and more money to clean up the pollutants coming from farms upstream.

We know how to solve the problems.

Soil scientists tell us that conventional farming practices are destroying the health of America’s soils. Unhealthy soils hold far less water, and even moderate rains cause a deluge of runoff into nearby streams, carrying soil, fertilizer, maure and pesticides with them. In contrast, healthy soils, those full of organic matter, healthy fungus and bacteria can absorb even a heavy rain like a sponge, keeping the water on the land where it belongs.

Regenerating America’s soils with the right combination of farming practices would keep rainfall in the soil and reduce polluted runoff.

Planting buffer strips of vegetation between cropland and streams will reduce the pollutants that end up in our waterways. Trees, shrubs and grasses can filter the pollutants and catch and hold eroding soil. Soil testing and nutrient management plans on cropland, and smarter grazing systems on grassland, can help as well.   

Farm Bill conservation programs provide over $5 billion every year to help farmers and ranchers be better stewards of the land and water, our nation’s largest single source of funding for conservation on farms and ranches. Those funds should be focused on helping farmers adopt practices that restore soil health and protect water quality, and the Izaak Walton League is working to make that happen.

State programs can also fund conservation practices that address water quality problem at the state level. The League is working in targeted states to support efforts to boost water quality funding and find other solutions to reduce pollution from farms and ranches.

Our Clean Water Challenge is training volunteers around the country to adopt and monitor their local stream, providing information on the health of those waters that can help identify solutions and galvanize communities to make needed change.     

Given the huge challenge we face, it is crucial that the next Farm Bill do more – not less – to restore water quality in our rivers, lakes and wetlands. The League’s agenda for the Farm Bill proposes more funding for conservation programs, and better targeting of those conservation dollars.

  • The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers to set aside erodible and environmentally sensitive cropland, planting grass or trees that hold soil in place, provide buffers for streams and wetlands, and restore wildlife habitat. The CRP must do more to fund buffer strips, filter strips and wetland conservation that keep pesticides, fertilizer and livestock manure out of our rivers and lakes.
  • The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) helps farmers restore and protect wetlands and native prairie. The program has helped fund long-term protection of more than 4 million acres of wetland and prairie, ensuring that future generations will be able to enjoy the water quality and other benefits they provide. Funding for the program needs to be increased to meet the growing demand.
  • Other Farm Bill programs reward conservation practices and systems that boost soil health, help farmers develop conservation plans, and reduce polluted runoff into streams and wetlands. Those programs can be streamlined and better focused to address our greatest wildlife and water quality challenges.

The 2018 Farm Bill needs to ensure that farmers, ranchers and communities have the tools they need to restore soil health and protect the quality of water in our rivers, lakes and wetlands. The League’s Farm Bill Agenda will do just that.

With your help, we can make America’s waters swimmable and fishable again.