OMAHA (DTN) -- Federal funding for conservation programs has failed to produce broad environmental benefits, and the next farm bill should include stricter provisions to make sure dollars are better spent, the Environmental Working Group said in a new report this week.
Along with the launching of a state-by-state, county-by-county database, http://bit.ly/…, showing where some $30 billion in federal conservation funds were spent, the EWG published a scathing report concluding voluntary conservation hasn't worked because many environmental problems related to agriculture production persist.
USDA maintains the programs have been effective, while an agriculture group representative said voluntary programs need time to work.
The database includes information on how and where money is spent for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) but not for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which EWG said it was unable to obtain through a series of freedom of information act requests in the past seven years.
"By every measure, farming's threats to public health and the environment are mounting," the EWG said. "EWG has constructed the conservation database, the first tool of its kind, to help devise badly needed course corrections to ensure that federal conservation programs fulfill their promises."
The report said taxpayers spent $29.8 billion on USDA conservation in the past decade. However, EWG said "the landscape is still plagued by contaminated drinking water, toxic algal blooms, microbes resistant to antibiotics and rural communities blighted by millions of animals trapped in factory farms."
Federal voluntary conservation programs "can play an important role, but they aren't leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment," EWG said.
"It's not fair to ask taxpayers to pay for everything farmers should be doing anyway to be good neighbors to those across the road, downstream or down wind."
A USDA spokesperson told DTN voluntary conservation measures have proven successful where applied.
"Voluntary conservation measures work, and we have the results to prove it," the spokesperson said in a statement.
"Because of the enthusiastic participation of farmers and ranchers in USDA's conservation programs, waterways have been removed from the list of impaired streams, millions of acres of vital habitat have been restored and protected, helping once-imperiled species recover, and millions of tons of sediment losses have been reduced from watersheds.
"Although this criticism is misguided, it does underscore the importance of ensuring adequate resources are in place to operate conservation program most effectively. The conversation now needs to be about strengthening these important and effective incentive-based programs."
USDA said there has been record enrollment of private working lands in conservation programs during the past six years.
As a result, nitrogen runoff from farms has been reduced by more than 3.5 billion pounds, or nearly 600 million pounds per year. Phosphorus runoff has been reduced by more than 700 million pounds since 2009, according to USDA.
The agency said the programs have helped to re-establish land cover to improve water quality and to reduce the loss of wildlife habitat through the conservation reserve program.
During the past 30 years, USDA said, soil erosion has been reduced by an annual average rate of 325 million tons, or 9 billion tons since the program started in 1985. In addition, the agency said conservation practices have reduced net greenhouse gas emissions by more than 416 million metric tons since 2009. That is the equivalent of taking 12.6 million cars off the road for a year.
Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association, told DTN his group can agree with the Environmental Working Group's push for a stronger conservation program title in the next farm bill.
Where ISA and EWG part ways, he said, is in just how effective voluntary conservation programs have been and whether those programs have been given long enough to work.
The ISA continues to be front and center in Iowa farmers' efforts to reduce nutrients runoff through targeted conservation efforts.
"Conservation did work for those who participated," Wolf said. "They're (EWG) asking a bigger question -- what did society get from this program? Recently, we began to apply partnerships, etc., to bring together lots of conservation efforts. We know that targeting is important."
Wolf said his group is working on a variety of conservation projects targeting the use of funds in specific watersheds where soil erosion is a problem.
"Those programs are relatively new," he said.
In the Cedar River watershed project, for example, Wolf said there are 16 different parties involved. Statewide, less than 2% of crop lands used cover crops. In the watershed, however, about 11% use cover crops.
"I think we're seeing these dollars being used more wisely," he said.
The EWG's effort essentially "illuminates the fact people need to come to grips with how big a challenge these things are," Wolf said.
"The scope and scale of these challenges are very large. We have to be diligent and make sure the investments are working.
"It's a little bit frustrating. For people that participate, the conservation title performs. We certainly agree conservation programs need to be targeted. Soil conservation work is a compelling investment. And let's not forget farmers are investing money of their own," Wolf said.
NEXT FARM BILL
EWG said the next farm bill should include stricter conservation compliance to ensure clean drinking water and curb "unsustainable use of water for crop irrigation," to clean polluted lakes and streams, and to reduce pesticides use.
The voluntary conservation programs, the report says, should be focused on fewer practices that are the most effective in fixing the most pressing problems.
"Since 1997, the EQIP program has let farmers choose among 350 individual practices," the report says.
"Since 2010, the CSP has allowed farmers to pick any of 200 individual enhancements. It's far too easy to implement these programs cafeteria-style, letting farmers pick the measures they like best, with too little regard for which remedies would do the most good."
Between 2007 and 2014, EWG said landowners removed about 15.8 million acres from the CRP.
"That added up to at least $8.9 billion in rental payments that created no lasting change," the report said.
"Congress should ramp up funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and authorize a suite of more flexible easements designed to protect more types of sensitive land."
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com
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