Last month, I had one of those aha moments. A reporter was asking me about my thoughts on Iowa’s water quality and whether I thought shifting rainfall patterns (climate change) could be affecting nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. I responded that the research on this topic was crystal clear — that over the last 20 years, the intensity of rainstorms has significantly increased, resulting in more runoff. The seriousness of this phenomenon should not be dismissed or ignored.
Across most of the United States, the heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent. Since 1991, the amount of rain falling, during very heavy precipitation events, has been significantly above average. This increase has been greatest in the Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains – more than 30% above the 1901-1960 average.
Combine that information with the research by Royer, et. al., that demonstrates “nearly all nutrient export occurred when discharge was greater than the median discharge, and extreme discharges (≥ 90th percentile) were responsible for greater than 50% of the NO3–N export and greater than 80% of the P export.
Right there, on the phone, in the middle of my interview, I experienced an incredible aha moment. Putting the pieces together, it hit me that increased runoff caused by climate change could easily erase the benefits made by farmers who make moderate improvements in soil and water conservation. That realization was astonishing to me. What this means to society is that we may never recognize improvements in water quality until conservation practices are applied at significantly greater rates. So if we continue to use historical climate and rainfall data to predict our need for water quality-protection and soil conservation practices, we will continue to underestimate the amount of work needed to clean up our water.
During the interview, the reporter asked me, “Tom, who should pay for conservation; the public or farmers?” Honestly, I get asked this question a lot, so you think I would be prepared. But it was the context of the question that caused me to pause before answering with this line of reasoning. If climate change is caused by society’s activities (CO2 emissions), then why should farmers be the ones to pay the full price of cleaning up our water? If society’s actions cause these heaviest rainfall events to become heavier and more frequent, then why shouldn’t society share in the cost of conservation? If society wants cleaner water and we can acknowledge that climate change plays a role in increased soil erosion, shouldn’t we expect society to split the bill with farmers?
Isn’t that kind of like buying an old car that has a lot of existing dents, getting into an accident, and expecting the insurance company to repair the vehicle to like-new condition?
Furthermore, can we regulate an industry (agriculture) if a significant portion of the “said pollution” is being caused by other cogs in society? But of course, to shore up my argument, you would have to accept that climate change is due to human activities. Novel concept.
Tom – You are on the right track with your thinking. Even prior to the impacts of climate change a few farmers were responsible for the majority of the degradation. This has not changed with climate change, only added another instance of disproportionality to be ignored in policy and agency actions. The belief that any effort to control resource degradation has to be applied equally persists even though the notion of equality in nature is nonsense. Until we are ready to take the most vulnerable lands out of production (no, CRP did not do this) and penalize inappropriate management in these locations, the ‘who pays’ question will persist.
Pete, I completely agree with you. As you know I am not suggesting that farmers “get off” with doing nothing. Climate change is not an excuse. However I do believe that states like Minnesota got it right. They have invested significant public dollars to help farmers offset the cost of conservation. And yes, I agree we need to penalize “inappropriate management” but I’ not sure if I can define “inappropriate management”. As the saying goes, I know it when I see it but I don’t think that will hold up.
Tom I think you are spot on and in my opinion increasing soil health is the best way to accomplish this on a larger scale. According to Dr. Jerry Hatfield ARS at Ames Iowa the difference in infiltration rates of an unhealthy soil vs a healthy soil is .5″ of rainfall per hour for an unhealthy soil vs 5″ of rainfall per hour in a healthy soil. I can’t think of any conservation practices that could produce any more compelling results to water quality than rewarding farmers to practice better soil health activities.
Dave, thanks for your comment. One should always listen to Dr. Hatfield’s wisdom. After years of quietly promoting soil health, I am thrilled to hear all the discussion and work in that direction. Along with soil health, I think we need to seriously consider retention structures like ponds and wetlands. Once a staple practice in our conservation toolbox, it seems ponds have been forgotten. For years, we built ponds for flood control, livestock watering, gully control, and sediment deposition. Unfortunately, ponds don’t seem to be in vogue anymore.
The biggest problem in SD, where I live, is the lack of transparency with NRCS, on drainage projects. We had producers leaving the Farm Bill programs when they figured out the could still get Crop Insurance w/o being in the Farm Bill programs since the 96 farm bill. In 2014, when we got FCI tied back into the farm bill, the drainage just kept going. We put together studies about the obvious drainage still taking place, showing how the land looked 10 years ago and how it looks now, and NRCS told us we could not get the information on the drainage because it was the producers “private” information, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) didn’t permit the private information to be divulged. SD is quickly becoming IA and southern MN, with 90% of the wetlands drained. http://www.audubon.org/magazine/northern-great-plains-grassland-and-wetland-habitat-falls-plow
Apologies for a long response. Most of us concerned with agriculture, climate, and nutrient pollution tend to assume that nutrient application itself is an unchangeable constant. In other words, farmers (owner/operators, renters, absentee owners, and so on) must produce to satisfy the demand and do better than break even on production costs.
We also tend to think of climate as a given, a sort of constant. It’s also a stand-in for a set of complex but specific processes under the abstract umbrella of “climate change.” The complexity (not to mention politics and stubbornness) often leaves us pointing our fingers at highly variable “weather” patterns over which we have almost no control. I’d like to put out the idea that, once we examine both nutrient use and climate change, we actually end up with very concrete physical processes over which we have at least partial control.
The problem is that we reject control for a variety of reasons: economic self-interest, political persuasion, and the “squeaky wheel” of climate change denial. Why? The profitability of agriculture (mostly at the level of large agribusinesses that control the assumptions and methods) is at stake, and our society has elevated profit as the (arguably) greatest moral good. All the tactics to protect profit line up: stalling on policy changes, making denial into the loud, squeaky wheel of tiny minority position, and always referring all changes back to the “immoral” effects on profitability.
So let me back away from that to a bigger, longer view, and generate a different set of assumptions. In doing so, I put almost everything on the table, and open myself to all the squeaky-wheel defenses that are, by now, cliches.
1) Treat nutrients as variables, not untouchable constants, on the input side. As another comment points out, Jerry Hatfield looked at this very closely, against the grain of many interests. Better management of inputs is needed, but current best practices aren’t gaining us much. What about a nutrient fee, along the lines of a carbon credit/tax system? Studies on and practices based on nutrient sequestration, rather like carbon sequestration? And of course, pressure (nonregulatory and regulatory) to install practices on the output side: wetlands, good drinking water cleaning for private and municipal water systems. However, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Input is where the solution lies.
2) Understand “climate” as a set of specific input variables, including but not limited to weather events. As far as I’m concerned, climate change is readily observable: bird population changes in the Midwest over the last 40 years, earthworms emerging on January 3 in Des Moines (only to be frozen within a few hours), rain instead of snow in the depths of winter, the appearance of Palmer amaranth in Iowa, the profusion of water hemp in crop fields, the successes of invasive plants in all kinds of habitats (not just ag lands). You see, climate and climate change are in fact very measurable and observable in specific effects.
3) Conduct specific studies of longterm weather trends. There need to be scientific analyses of existing longterm weather data. I don’t think these need much time; certainly not years. What they need are funding and political will. Obvious ones are rainfall intensity, nighttime temperature changes, and average daily/monthly/seasonal/annual temps.
4) Monitor and analyze our streams along with weather data analysis. Stream discharge (related in part to drainage tile output) patterns should be assessed by week/month/season/year, through onsite measurement by trained people and well-placed stream gages. Discharges should also compare HUC-12 or larger watersheds by amount of tiling in some way, both including and factoring out other variables like topography, surface and subsurface drainage, land uses (only cropped land, combined land uses). Then consider a tile tax credit system for all new tile installation after, say, 2010, along with credits for existing tile that is made nonfunctional and possibly incentives to not install tile, especially on land that exceeds 5% slope.
I’ve seen far too much tile put into place on somewhat erodable land (5-9% slopes) just so it can be tilled or so that it can be made more productive. There are also a few fields with higher slope angles that have gotten black plastic piping, sometimes in herringbone patterns. I can imagine the downstream effects, and those effects aren’t good: worse sediment loss, increased flashy flooding, release of soil-bound legacy phosphorus, higher overall nutrient loading (tons of nutrients, not concentrations), increased risk of bacterial contamination from legally applied manure.
5) Increase soil carbon content. This appears to have multiple benefits. It sequesters more carbon that otherwise would be present in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. It greatly increases the tilth of our soils with fairly stable and accessible nutrients. It reduces surface water and wind erosion with plant matter and heavier organic molecules interspersed among the mineral soil particles. How? Old-fashioned manure spreading (but not on frozen ground, not even before the legal cutoff date), cover cropping (assuring that the carbon footprint is better than break-even, so probably not by airplane or helicopter), crop rotation, prairie STRIPS (multiple benefits from those, too), development of perennial land cover (my prejudice is against GMO versions of the usual monoculture crops, and toward greater diversity of crop types), large-scale composting and spreading (using organic residues from non-crop lands that otherwise gets buried or “lost” to topsoil processes).
There needs to be serious leadership from individual owners, operators, commodity and non-commodity organizations, agribusinesses, politicans, taxpayers – in effect, everyone – to get a broad set of remedies going. Whether or not these are regulatory, they need to have teeth and scale. One form of “tooth” is simply for neighbors to hint, suggest, and cajole their neighbors into doing something. That’s called peer pressure. I’m not a farmer (someone once thought I could be trained, and it was a valuable learning experience in many ways), but my future is tied up in Iowa’s farming systems as deeply as an operator’s, in the absence of the daily work discipline.
Somewhere above are a number of measurable and controllable “innappropriate practices,” to address a problem that Tom mentioned. I won’t spell them out here. I’ll stop now, because I’ve batted at enough hornets’ nests to keep me on the run for a very long time. And besides, this is supposed to be a “comment.”
1) My experience is that farmers as a group are largely hostile to the idea of anthropogenic climate change;
2) Their response to wetter weather is frequently to install more drainage, which of course multiplies the water quality effects of wetter weather.
Chris, I agree with you that many farmers tend to dismiss anthropogenic climate change. That is not a universal belief among farmers, but I would guess a majority view. However I don’t think that gives the rest of “who do believe” the right to expect farmers to burden the full load just because they don’t believe. It seems like punitive action for not believing. You and I know climate change, caused by society, is exasperating the problem. I believe we all share in finding and funding a solution.