The U.S. Department of Agriculture could potentially spend part of its budget for water quality improvements seven to 12 times more cost effectively than it does now. A new WRI analysis shows how, explains why USDA isn’t already doing so, and proposes ways to make a complex policy a reality.
For more than 30 years, the USDA has worked to reduce water pollution by offering farmers throughout the nation financial and technical help to put conservation measures in place. While these efforts have successfully addressed environmental problems at the individual farm level—such as soil erosion—agriculture remains a key source of water pollution.
However, it’s only a small portion of farms that generate the majority of agriculture’s contribution to U.S. water pollution. New research shows that targeting conservation funds to these farms with the most potential to reduce pollution could be up to 12 times more cost effective than the usual practice of disbursing funds widely. And encouragingly, a new USDA program aims to capitalize on a similar targeted approach.
Few programs have seen widespread success in tackling water quality problems in the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico, but an emerging initiative could present a way forward. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) in 2009. New WRI research finds that with some specific improvements, the MRBI’s new approach could play a key role in improving the nation’s inland and coastal water quality.