Nutrients & Farm Bill 

Pursuing New Tools to Address Nutrient-Related Water Quality Challenges

Nutrient pollution remains a substantial challenge to the water resources of the United States. Deficiencies in the federal regulatory and policy framework, as well as the lack and inflexibility of financial resources, have constrained needed progress. These factors continue to drive strong interest in developing and implementing alternative nutrient management approaches.

For more than two decades NACWA has led efforts at the national level to look for approaches to controlling nutrient pollution in new and innovative ways. Nutrients do not behave like the toxic pollutants the Clean Water Act (CWA) was designed to address and NACWA has sought regulatory changes, new policies and collaborative initiatives in an effort to make further progress.

NACWA’s efforts include advocacy work to create additional space for flexibility within the CWA regulatory framework and working with our partners in the water sector and in agriculture to find ways for public clean water utilities to better engage upstream with agricultural partners to achieve meaningful water quality improvements through holistic, watershed-based approaches.

Regulatory Flexibility

NACWA is increasingly seeing examples of flexible interpretations and applications of the CWA and the Act’s regulatory framework, which have supported improved water quality at a lower cost than the more conventional approaches that are historically used by federal and state regulators. NACWA is working to promote these more productive, collaborative, and flexible approaches to nutrient management.

A key area where additional flexibility is needed is EPA’s continued push to have states translate narrative nutrient criteria into numeric permit limits. NACWA has raised concerns with this approach for more than a decade. Translation of narrative criteria into numeric limits was intended as a stop gap for toxic pollutants. Applying water quality approaches intended for toxics to nutrients is inappropriate and can lead to unnecessarily conservative permit limits, often exceeding the limits of technology, without providing meaningful water quality improvements.

NACWA Farm Bill Reauthorization Advocacy

NACWA’s work to promote more productive, collaborative, and flexible approaches to nutrient management has led to active engagement on the Farm Bill.  The Association and its Farm Bill working Group actively engaged with Congress on the 2018 Farm Bill reauthorization for nearly two years to secure key bipartisan provisions to better help address water quality and non-point source nutrient loading issues at a watershed level through holistic, collaborative, and innovative approaches.

As a result, the final 2018 Farm Bill passed into law with several key NACWA priorities included that will help public clean water utilities better meet their growing water quality challenges and obligations more cost-effectively. 

The provisions include a Sense of Congress which affirms the value of clean water sector collaboration with farmers to advance efficient and cost-effective clean water practices; improvements and increased flexibilities to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP); enhanced measurement, evaluation, and data collection of conservation practices; a focus on the use of precision agriculture technology; and the prioritization of source water protection. 

Congress is now turning its attention to analyzing Farm Bill programs in advance of key programs due to sunset at the end September 2023. NACWA reconvened its Farm Bill Workgroup in the Fall of 2022 to begin developing priorities to guide advocacy for the Association.

Among the key goals, NACWA will continue driving for holistic, watershed-based solutions to address water quality challenges. Clean water agencies are increasingly partnering with federal, state, and local partners to bring together farmers and rural landowners with urban communities on shared progress to protect and conserve our nation’s natural resources. 

Additionally, NACWA anticipates that biosolids management and PFAS will emerge as new issues in the 2023 Farm Bill, resulting from high-profile land and farm contamination issues tied to industrial sludges and releases that have galvanized public concern. Utilities manage their biosolids through three primary methods – land application, incineration, and/or landfilling – each of which have undergone decades of scientific study and are governed by a robust set of federal and state regulations. Land application is the most common method employed in the U.S. This sustainable approach recovers the rich nutrients found in biosolids for beneficial reuse, returning them to the earth as a soil amendment or fertilizer. NACWA will continue efforts to educate Congress about beneficial reuse, support public health protections based on science, and protect the ability for utilities to choose management approaches according to what is best for their communities.

Finally, NACWA will continue advocacy within the Farm Bill to encourage opportunities for energy generation and credits to support renewable energy sources. 

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