An NACWA white paper tells how clean-water agencies and farm organizations are working together against nutrient pollution.

From small streams and lakes to mighty oceans, nutrients are a major cause of water-quality problems. When it’s time to clean up, the finger often gets pointed at the local wastewater treatment plant.

In reality, as operators surely know, the biggest sources of nutrients to a given stream or lake often lie upstream in farm country, or on the streets and backyards in town. Yet policymakers looking to address nitrogen and phosphorus pollution commonly impose tough effluent standards on the treatment plants. Why? Maybe just because it’s easy.

That is changing, and one driver of the change is the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents the interest of large cities and wastewater utilities. NACWA has been working with farm organizations toward collaboration on nutrient reduction for the greater good. After all, nutrient loading is a watershed problem.

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Now, a white paper, Collaborating for Healthy Watersheds, highlighting nine successful municipal-agricultural collaborations that address water-quality issues at the watershed level, has been released by NACWA, the U.S. Water Alliance, and AGree, an organization aimed at driving positive change in the food and agriculture system and elevating food and agriculture as a national priority. The three organizations worked together on the paper, which describes the kinds of partnerships between municipalities and farmers that can lead to real progress on attaining water-quality goals and reducing nutrient loadings to the nation's surface waters.

In a press release, Jim Moseley, Indiana farmer, co-chair of AGree, and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stated, “When agricultural activities contribute to water quality impairments, as they too frequently do, it often means a big loss for us that work the land. It is our precious soil and expensive nutrients running into waterways that cause the problems. There are win-win opportunities for farmers to work with water utilities to improve water quality in their watersheds. As the case studies in this paper demonstrate, the bottom line of both farmers and utilities can benefit from collaboration. This is a very positive path forward.”

The traditional approach of building more and more advanced treatment facilities can result in an economic burden to many communities, the news release said. Therefore, both water and wastewater utilities have looked for more cost-effective solutions to create healthy watersheds and good water quality. One of the most promising approaches is to look upstream in the watershed to see if there are ways to prevent nutrients and other pollutants from being released into waterways, in collaboration with agriculture and other partners.

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“What’s become increasingly evident is that collaboration between agriculture and the water sector is key to water sustainably,” said Dick Champion, U.S. Water Alliance Chair. “This report represents progress in that direction.” The projects highlighted in the white paper cover nine states and include:

  • New York City’s Watershed Protection Program and Watershed Agricultural Council
  • Tualatin River (Oregon) Enhanced Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program
  • The Great Miami River (Ohio) Watershed Water Quality Credit Trading Program
  • Yahara Watershed (Wisconsin) Improvement Network (WINs)
  • Fresno-Clovis (California) Regional Water Reclamation Facility (RWRF) agricultural program
  • Lake Springfield (Illinois) Nitrogen Management Program
  • Central Valley (California) Salinity Alternatives for Long-Term Sustainability (CVSALTS)
  • Northern Everglades (Florida) and Estuaries Protection Program – Payment for Environmental Services
  • Arroyo Colorado (Texas) Watershed Protection Plan

In the news release, Ken Kirk, NACWA executive director, observed, “We hope the white paper will encourage many stakeholders to seriously consider and become involved in innovative collaborations with nontraditional partners to improve water quality in a more holistic manner. This white paper demonstrates that such partnerships are indeed achievable and successful."

The white paper can be downloaded here. Questions may be directed to Pat Sinicropi, NACWA; Mark Jacobs, AGree; or Lorraine Koss, U.S. Water Alliance.

Related: Wastewater treatment plant starts nutrient trading to improve discharge

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