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Water Markets Would Pay Farmers For Cleaner Streams

Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from corn fields polluted many waterways in the Midwest.
David Staedtler
Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from corn fields polluted many waterways in the Midwest.

Farmers make a living by raising and selling crops. But what if they could also earn money by taking steps to improve water quality? That’s the idea behind a government effort to create markets for clean water.

It’s an example of an environmental market -- making the land do more than just grow corn or soybeans. It can also sequester carbon, filter pollutants out of water, and give wildlife a place to live. These markets are becoming a more common way for state and federal regulators to approach pollution controls from utilities, industry, and agriculture.

Scientists and regulators from around the country are in Lincoln, Neb., this week to learn about the idea of trading water quality. It would work like carbon trading, but instead of selling offsets for clean air, farmers would sell credits for cleaner water.

For instance, a farmer could earn credits from conservation practices like planting cover crops, installing wetlands, or leaving soil intact. A factory or water utility could buy those credits to meet federal regulations.

It’s seen as a way to get more farmers on board with conservation, which is important because farms aren’t treated the same as power plants and wastewater facilities when it comes to water pollution.

Water from a power plant is monitored and has to stay below permitted levels. That doesn’t apply to a typical corn or soybean field, even though in Iowa, non-point sources such as farms account for 92 percent of nitrogen and 80 percent of phosphorous pollution.

Some farmers are doing more to measure their impacton water. Private companies are offering incentives for farmers to do more to reduce nutrient pollution. But many farmers are still on the sidelines.

Ann Mills, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, told me that the incentives are a way to get farmers interested.

“If we want to achieve our clean water goals in this country, we’ve got to get a lot more people involved,” Mills said. “Regulation alone is not going to get us there.”

Clean water markets are already up and running in places like Virginia and Ohio. USDA recently announced some $10 million in funding to launch environmental markets across the country. And they’re not just for water. There will soon be markets for carbon reduction and even wildlife habitat.

These markets have their critics. Some environmental groups say polluters shouldn’t be able to pay their way out of trouble. And they say that there is not enough measurement to prove that the conservation practices farmers are putting in place are actually paying off with cleaner air and water. 

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, wanted the Nebraska meetings cancelled, saying the markets are a bad idea.

Reports have shown that Nebraska’s waterways are among the most polluted in the nation, thanks to pollution from factory farms and large slaughterhouses and processing plants," she said. "Water pollution trading takes the onus off of polluters, providing a voluntary, deregulatory scheme that undermines the main tenet of the Clean Water Act—that pollution is illegal."

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Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.
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