Florida's Treasure Coast has turned toxic this summer, as a foul-smelling algae bloom resembling guacamole has made some of the Sunshine State's beaches untouchable. One cause is the controlled release of water from an over-full Lake Okeechobee into local rivers that flow east to the Atlantic and west to the Gulf of Mexico.
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.
The Gulf of Mexico has the largest dead zone in the United States and the second-largest in the world. Dead zones form when excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous wash into waterways and spur algal blooms, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish, shrimp, and other marine life. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone can range between an astounding 3,000 and 8,000 square miles. At its largest, it’s about the size of Massachusetts.
This year’s extreme weather events—a warm winter, even warmer summer, and a drought that covered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States—has certainly caused its fair share of damages. But despite the crop failures, water shortages, and heat waves, extreme weather created at least one benefit: smaller dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico.
Agricultural production often comes at the expense of water quality. As my colleague, Mindy Selman, noted in a recent blog post, “Agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.”
Our water systems are currently being threatened by the crops we grow and food we produce. In many countries, agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.
Water supply and availability could be the most pressing problem restricting China’s economic growth in the next 10-15 years, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank. Not only are water resources limited (only about 30 percent of total water resources are available for use), but many surface and groundwater sources are suffering from severe pollution.[^1] The Chinese government is now looking to invest in new ideas to improve water quality and supply, and WRI is using its water quality trading expertise to explore the potential of market-based methods to improve water quality and increase the supply of clean water from Chao Lake, the fifth-largest lake in China.
Wisconsin is a state blessed with abundant natural beauty and was home to one of America’s first conservationists, Aldo Leopold. Leopold recognized that beyond commodities, nature provides services that sustain our planet – such as clean air, clean water and recreational opportunities – and that these services are worth something. He also recognized the importance of providing incentives that reward proper land management. Leopold’s vision still resonates as the 4th annual Ecosystem Markets Conference takes place this week in Madison, Wisconsin.