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Lessons learned about the performance of USDA agricultural nonpoint source pollution programs.

Agricultural production often emits pollutants that affect the quality of the nations water resources and impose costs on water users. The extent and magnitude of agricultural pollution is difficult to assess because of its nonpoint nature. However, agriculture is believed to be the leading source of impairment in the nation's rivers and lakes, and a major source of impairment to estuaries (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1995). Producing food and fiber involves many activities and practices that can affect the quality of water resources under and near the field. For example, tilling the soil and leaving it without plant cover for extended periods of time results in accelerated soil erosion. Some of this erosion eventually reaches water as sediment. The use of chemical inputs increases the probability that some of these materials will be carried in runoff or in percolating water into water resources. Irrigation can move salt and other dissolved minerals to surface water. Livestock operations produce large amounts of waste which, if not properly utilized, can threaten human health as well as contribute to excess nutrient problems in streams, rivers, and lakes.

Over the past several decades the USDA has had a number of programs for addressing water-quality, including the Model Implementation Program of the 1970s and the Rural Clean Water Program (RCWP) and Water Quality Special Projects of the 1980s. In 1990, USDA made a commitment to protect the nation's waters from contamination by agricultural chemicals and waste products by establishing the Water Quality Program (WQP). The Water Quality Program used voluntary measures to address agricultural nonpoint source pollution problems, relying on tools that do not impose long-term costs on farmers. These include education, technical assistance, and financial assistance. Water quality projects that use these tools are hereafter referred to as "voluntary programs." The WQP strove to (a) determine the precise nature of the relationship between agricultural activities and water quality; and (b) develop and induce the voluntary adoption of technically and economically effective agrochemical management and agricultural production strategies that protect the beneficial uses of ground- and surface-water quality (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1993).

By 1996, USDA's water quality program had extended assistance to farmers and landowners in over 400 selected project areas in all states but Nevada [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Sixteen Demonstration Projects (DP) were primarily educational and technical assistance efforts to show farmers and ranchers cost-effective agricultural production techniques and systems that minimize the movement of pesticides and nutrients into water resources. Elements of these systems include nutrient management, alternative cropping systems, integrated pest management (IPM), alternative pest control strategies, appropriate chemical application and disposal techniques, and integration of weather data into farm decisions. Started in 1990 and 1991 as 5-year projects, 15 of the projects have been extended until 1999.

Seventy-four Hydrologic Unit Area (HUA) projects were targeted to watersheds with identified nonpoint source water quality problems. With financial assistance from the Farm Services Agency (FSA) through the Agricultural Conservation Program (ACP), education from the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), and technical assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), local landowners applied alternative management practices to meet state water quality goals without undue economic hardship. Started in 1990 and 1991 as 5-year-projects, 63 have been extended until 1999.

One hundred ten Water Quality Special Projects (WQSP) extended cost-share assistance to farmers and ranchers for installing approved water quality practices in small watersheds with identified agricultural nonpoint source problems. Water Quality Special Projects were funded through ACP. WQSPs were annual projects, although landowners and FSA could enter into multi-year agreements. No new projects were funded after 1992, with resources being shifted to the Water Quality Incentive Projects.

Two hundred forty-two Water Quality Incentive Projects were designed to achieve source reductions of nonpoint source agricultural pollutants in an environmentally and economically sound manner. Projects were targeted to small watersheds that were generally less than 100,000 acres (40,500 ha). Agricultural producers in the project area were provided with the necessary financial assistance required to make changes in management systems to restore or enhance water resources impaired by agricultural sources of pollution. Incentive payments were for management practices such as IPM, not for structural practices, and were funded through ACE Agreements with landowners were generally for 3 years.

Farmer assistance activities were supported by research. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and CSREES conducted or supported research on the scientific principles upon which good natural resource management is built. ARS funded 62 research projects at 26 locations in 1990 to 1994, while CSREES awarded 245 competitively selected research grants. Grants were awarded for studies involving the fate and transport of contaminants within surface and ground water systems, sampling and testing methods, management and remediation practices, and the economics of adoption. Some of this research has already provided new tools for reducing agricultural nonpoint source pollution, including practical techniques for chemical and soil characterization, the use of orchardgrass to trap nitrogen from dairy manure, new nitrogen tests for increasing nutrient efficiency, and the use of subsurface drip irrigation for increasing water use efficiency.

The Midwest Initiative on Water Quality Systems evaluated the environmental and economic performance of corn and soybean production systems in Management Systems Evaluation Areas (MSEAs). These are farm-, field-, and watershed-size test sites in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio. The MSEAs installed state-of-the-art field equipment to study the affects of various crop management systems on water quality. Modified cropping systems specifically suited to the soil, geology, climate, irrigation, nitrogen, and pesticide needs were tested. Soil and water tests provided valuable data concerning the fate and transport of agricultural chemicals within the environment. Demonstration activities in some of the projects promoted the adoption of new practices.

USDA's Water Quality Program succeeded in getting many landowners in targeted watersheds to adopt alternative management practices that protect water resources from agricultural pollution. The 1993 annual report for the HUAs and DPs, (the last one produced), indicated that nitrogen management practices had been implemented on over 1 million acres (405,000 ha), or 46% of the five-year goal for the projects (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1995). Phosphorus management had been implemented on over 850,000 acres (344,250 ha), or nearly 100% of the program goal. Pesticide management practices had been implemented on over 500,000 acres (202,500 ha), or 43% of the goal. Erosion and sediment control practices had been implemented on over one million acres (405,000 ha). Irrigation water management practices had been implemented on over 170,000 acres (68,850 ha). WQIP projects also reported significant success in getting landowners to adopt alternative management practices on cropland (Table 1).
Table 1. Major practices installed under WQIP, FY 92 - FY 95

Practice                                 Acres

Conservation cropping sequence          181,144
Conservation tillage                    140,404
Crop residue use                         78,601
Integrated crop management              305,576
Irrigation water management             152,361
Nutrient management                     349,499
Pasture and hayland management          122,985
Pest management                         273,708
Waste utilization                       124,161

Source: Economic Research Service

Note: One acre treated in two different years with the same practice
is counted as two acres treated.


While much progress is being made, some problems still exist. Progress in the demonstration projects was decidedly mixed, based on an evaluation conducted in eight projects by the University of Wisconsin (Nowak 1996). The Wisconsin study reported that producer awareness of most of the designated BMPs increased measurably from 1992 to 1994 at most of the demonstration sites. Producer familiarity (a step beyond awareness in the adoption process) with most of the designated BMPs increased measurably at most demonstration sites. Analysis also indicated that education activities had a role in increasing farmer awareness and familiarity with new practices. However, increases in actual adoption of designated practices were much limited. Also, little statistical evidence was found that education was increasing farmer awareness, familiarity, or adoption of new practices to greater degrees than for farmers not located in project areas. While the education activities were a good source of information within the project areas, farmers outside the projects were also receiving information on new practices, apparently from a variety of sources. Some problems identified within the DPs included a lack of belief on the part of farmers that a water quality problem existed, lack of local research demonstrating the economic and environmental effectiveness of recommended practices, and coordination problems between the agencies involved (Rockwell et al. 1991).

The progress made in the Hydrologic Unit Area projects was not without problems. A close examination of eight projects by NRCS pointed to some weaknesses (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996). Targeting of practices to critical problem areas was generally accomplished, and used a variety of approaches ranging from informal local staff knowledge to aerial inventory. Quantitative documentation of targeting, however, was generally limited to pest management practices. While many different practices were available, most acreage was treated with only a few common conservation practices, including nutrient management, conservation tillage, and animal waste management.

Project evaluation was a problem (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996). Reasons for slow adoption of practices were not systematically documented. Water quality monitoring was nonexistent or inadequate for most projects. As a result, progress was commonly measured by acres treated, which is generally an inadequate measure for assessing whether water quality will improve, and whether program activities are effective in promoting improved production practices.

The WQIP projects also showed substantial amounts of acreage being treated by a variety of management practices. However, studies of the WQIP program indicated some shortcomings in the level of financial assistance for particular practices (Cooper and Keim 1996; Higgins 1995). As in the HUAs, monitoring and assessment were lacking, making progress difficult to judge.

Some of these problems are inherent to voluntary nonpoint source pollution control programs. Voluntary programs are difficult to target within a watershed to those operators who may be causing the greatest problems. The very nature of nonpoint source pollution and our limited understanding of the physical processes involved makes identification of "problem" farms problematic. Even if these operators can be identified with certainty, the farm operators must be convinced that the practices are profitable, or that his or her health is at immediate risk, for voluntary programs to be effective. Without these conditions, or a credible threat of regulation, there are no compelling reasons for a farmer to switch to new and unfamiliar production practices.

From an institutional standpoint, program agencies find it difficult to hold off practice implementation until an adequate framework for maximizing program effectiveness is in place. Language in authorizing legislation and past budget experiences push program agencies to offer assistance to farmers as soon as possible. Usually, insufficient time is set aside up front to establish adequate monitoring systems, to develop water quality and practice baselines, or to test whether the practices believed to be appropriate for addressing the problems at hand are actually right for that particular physical and economic setting.

Guidance for water quality projects. based on the experiences of the Water Quality program and past USDA water quality programs such as the Rural Clean .Water Program (RCWP), and on the findings of research in the area of technology adoption, the conditions under which voluntary, watershed-based water quality projects have the best chances for success can be outlined:

Cost-effectiveness is enhanced when program activities are targeted to watersheds where agriculture is the primary source of a water quality impairment, and to critical areas within watersheds.

Maximizing the benefits of program efforts depends on identifying those watersheds where changing farm management strategies will improve water quality, and where the demand for water quality is highest. Watersheds with identifiable water quality problems differ greatly in the water quality improvements that can be achieved through changes in agricultural management practices and in the economic and social benefits and costs of these improvements. Agriculture may not be the primary source of pollutants in an impaired watershed, limiting the degree that agricultural nonpoint source pollution programs can improve water quality. The success of some RCWP projects was limited because agriculture was not the primary source of water quality impairment (Magleby et al. 1989). The demand for water quality may be very low in some watersheds, due to a lack of population or an abundance of alternative quality water resources.

Targeting to maximize project effectiveness was part of the WQP. The WQIP and HUA projects were targeted to watersheds with known water quality problems, such as those identified by States under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act. The project selection process also included consideration of factors that were believed to increase the probability of success. Severity of water quality problems, presence of non-agricultural sources of pollution, potential beneficiaries, availability of local resources, availability of effective management practices, and farmer participation in previous programs are some of the types of information that program planners need to have in order to make an informed selection.

Program cost-effectiveness is enhanced when critical areas for priority treatment within watersheds are identified. Not all farms are the same, differing in proximity to water resources, soils, and management practices. Identifying those critical farms or areas that likely contribute disproportionately to a water quality problems greatly increases the effectiveness of assistance efforts. A finding of the RCWP program was that accurate definition of critical areas is a significant factor in project success (Gale et al. 1993).

The diffuse nature of nonpoint source pollution may make identifying critical areas for treatment difficult. The origin of residuals deposited in streams as nonpoint source pollution cannot be identified. However, local personnel may be able to identify critical areas based on knowledge of local production practices and resources. A variety of runoff and pollution loading models are now available that can assist in identifying critical areas. For example, the Soil-Pesticide Screening Procedure (SPISP) was widely used in the HUAs to identify areas particularly vulnerable to chemical leaching (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996).

Voluntary programs are likely to be most successful in areas where farmers recognize that agriculture contributes to severe local or on-farm pollution problems such as ground water impairment. The probability of success of a voluntary project is increased if farmers perceive a need to alter production practices. While profitability is an obvious reason for switching management measures, tapping into a farmer's concern for the health of local resources expands the set of practices they may be willing to adopt (Weaver 1996). Farmers that display some degree of stewardship or altruism towards the environment may be willing to adopt practices that increase their economic risks or decrease their profits, as long as the local environment benefits. Projects that can demonstrate to farmers that water quality problems are real and also that their actions can mitigate the problems are more likely to succeed.

Surveys of producer attitudes and beliefs towards the relationship between their actions and water quality indicate that farmers generally do not perceive that their activities affect the local environment. Surveys by Lichtenberg and Lessley in Maryland (Lichtenberg and Lessley 1992) and Halstead et al. in Iowa and Virginia (Halstead et al. 1990) found that farmers tended to express concern about environmental problems in general, but did not believe that a problem existed in their own counties, or that their farming practices affected water quality. The perception that a water quality problem exists decreases as the focus is turned on the local area or the farmers own farm. Less concern was expressed in regions with more commercialized agriculture, even though actual water quality problems are prevalent in those regions.

Pease and Bosch (1994) found that few farmers surveyed in part of Virginia perceived runoff or leaching problems on their own farms. Even if a sampled cropland site was known to have high potential for water quality damage, very few farmers considered the site to be a high risk for poor water quality. In a survey of participants in the voluntary RCWP program, Hoban and Wimberley found that only 14% of the respondents felt that water pollution was a serious problem in their area, despite the fact that projects were selected on the basis of existing water quality problems (Hoban and Wimberley 1992). Only 2% felt that water pollution was a serious problem on their farms, and over 79% claimed no problems existed. Slow progress in the Darby Creek HUA project in Ohio has been attributed to a lack of farmers' belief in the seriousness of the problem (Camboni and Napier 1994).

A survey of farmers in half of the demonstration projects revealed that while, the majority of farmers regarded water pollution as a serious problem nationwide, only 10% saw it as serious on their own land (Nowak and Skeefe 1996). Over 40% believed that their farm practices had no impact on water quality. However, over two-thirds agreed that farmers have a responsibility to protect water quality and that remedial practices are available to them. These percentages did not change much between 1992 and 1994, suggesting that an inadequate effort was made to educate farmers on their impact on local water quality, or that farmers were not receptive to the message.

If a link between farming activities and personal health can be clearly demonstrated, evidence suggests that farmers are more likely to take action. A successful program for educating farmers about the relationship between their activities and personal health is Farm*A*Syst (,Knox et al. 1995). Farm*A*Syst, which was developed by the Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service and is being supported by USDA, teaches farmers to assess impacts of farming operations on the farmstead environment. By doing so it raises the self-interest of farmers for altering certain practices, primarily around the farmstead and around private wells. It has been effective in getting individuals to take cost-effective, voluntary actions to remediate and prevent problems such as leaking fuel storage tanks, pesticide spills, and poor well maintenance (Knox et al. 1995).

Another example is West Lake Reservoir in Iowa. West Lake Reservoir was being adversely affected by sediment and the herbicide atrazine. Half the watershed for the reservoir was in corn/soybean rotations. Sediment was rapidly reducing reservoir capacity, damaging the water plant's filtration system and increasing operation and maintenance costs. Atrazine levels were above the MCL specified in the Safe Drinking Water Act. As part of a locally-initiated watershed project, no-till and ICM were promoted to producers in the watershed. Participating farmers greatly reduced atrazine use, resulting in an overall reduction in the watershed of 50%, and there were significant reductions in soil erosion (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1994). As a result of these reductions, atrazine concentrations in the reservoir have dropped below the MCL. The concentrations of another pesticide, cyanazine, have also decreased. This project is a good example of how local concern over an important resource, drinking water in this case, can spur rapid changes in production practices, albeit to practices that most likely increased net returns.

Voluntary programs are likely to be successful when the improved practices generate higher returns. The long-term success of voluntary programs depends on farmers continuing to use new practices after assistance ends. A successful program needs to identify the practices that are both profitable and beneficial to the environment (Batie 1994). One of the lessons learned from the RCWP program is that the profitability of a practice greatly enhances the probability that its use will be continued, after all assistance has ceased (Magleby et al. 1989). Some of the practices that help protect and enhance water quality and have been shown to be more profitable than conventional practices include conservation tillage, nutrient management, irrigation water management, and integrated pest management (Bull and Sandretto 1995; Ervin 1995).

The experience with WQP supports this view. While economic performance of practices was not tracked by the projects, the most widely used practices in the HUAs and WQIPs tended to be those that have generally been found to increase net returns, namely conservation tillage, nutrient management, and "conservation" rotations (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996) (Table 1). Practices that take land out of production, require construction of structures, or require planting of less profitable crops were less popular, even when financial assistance was available.

Flexible cost-share programs for practice adoption are more efficient than those with fixed rates and limited lists of supported practices. The availability of financial assistance is a very important part of a successful voluntary program. Even when practices are profitable, constraints to adoption due to increased risk, inexperience with the practice, and other management factors may prevent a farmer from adopting the practice. An optimal financial assistance program would be flexible in terms of incentive levels and in the practices eligible for assistance, reflecting the expected benefits from implementing practices (Malik and Shoemaker 1993). Incentive levels would be based on potential benefits (Malik and Shoemaker 1993). A program could therefore be justified in offering farmers in the watershed of a drinking water source greater financial incentives to adopt chemical management practices than to farmers in another watershed for the same practices.

The WQP offered financial assistance through the Agriculture Conservation Program, and thus was bound to ACP rules. Each project had a list of approved practices, the cost-share rates were fixed, and an annual cap of $3,500 was in place for each producer. based on Malik and Shoemaker, increased flexibility in terms of rates and practice eligibility would have improved project performance (Malik and Shoemaker 1993). In some of the DPs, innovative practices were not initially eligible for cost-sharing because they were not approved practices under ACP.

In the Ontario HUA project in Oregon, an ERS study found that farmers would not adopt the preferred irrigation system because the level of cost-sharing was not sufficient to offset high capital costs (Kim et al. 1994). The cost-share rates instead favored an alternative irrigation system, one that would not achieve ground water quality goals if actually adopted. If the water quality goals were sufficiently important, then the rates should have favored the system that would achieve those goals.

In the Sycamore Creek HUA project in Michigan, an ERS study found that financial incentives were adequate for the three most widely applied practices; IPM, nutrient management, and conservation tillage (unpublished study by David Letson, ERS, 1993). However, the cost-share rates for streambank management, the preferred practice for water quality protection in the project, were inadequate. Farmers would lose income from placing some of their cropland into vegetative buffers, even with the cost-share, so this practice was not adopted.

The incentive structure of WQIP was found to be inadequate for achieving program goals in a study by the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. This study found per-acre incentive payments for WQIP may not have been adequate to make producers in some parts of the country interested in implementing WQIP management practices that were identified as being necessary to meet individual project goals (Higgins 1995). When compared to the percentage of cost share payments for similar ACP practices, WQIP payments were often lower. The incentive is further reduced when the extra paperwork associated with developing a conservation plan is considered. A survey indicated that the payments for the following practices were too low: waste management system, conservation cover, conservation tillage, critical area planting, filter strip, pasture and hayland management, pasture and hayland planting, planned grazing system, strip cropping, nutrient management, pest management, and record keeping (Higgins 1995).

An evaluation by ERS indicated that incentive payments may be insufficient for adopting and maintaining some practices beyond 3 years. Using the results of a survey of farmers in parts of Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Idaho, the probability of adopting a preferred farming practice was modeled as a function of the incentive payments. The practices studied included conservation tillage, split fertilizer applications, IPM, legume crediting, manure crediting, and soil moisture testing. The results indicated that adoption rates of 8 to 73% could be achieved for no payment, suggesting that some producers may be willing to adopt certain practices without incentive payment because of the profitability of the practice (Cooper and Keim 1996). Practices such as nutrient management, rotations, and conservation tillage have been shown to increase net returns in many areas, and these practices were the most popular in the WQIP. However, the results also indicated that at current payment levels, only conservation tillage and split applications were attractive to at least 50% of producers. Fifty-percent adoption for the other practices would require a substantial increase in the incentive payment.

Project success is enhanced when education, technical, and financial assistance are offered in a coordinated fashion. There are a number of constraints to farmers adopting alternative management practices (Nowak 1991). Not all can be addressed by a single type of assistance. Education can inform producers about new and innovative practices, reduce the cost of obtaining information about practices, and clarify what may be inconsistent and conflicting information about a new practice. Technical assistance reduces the cost of obtaining information about a practice, helps provide managerial skill that may be lacking, and enables the producer to handle increasingly complex practices. Financial assistance helps overcome a short planning horizon, allows the farmer to accept greater risk over the short run (during the learning phase), and provides an incentive to try something that may be seen as non-traditional.

Not all farmers require the full spectrum of assistance, but it should be made available since project staff cannot determine a priori what types of assistance will be needed. Even when regulations provide the impetus for adopting alternative management practices, education and technical assistance are needed to ensure that the new practices are use properly (Bosch et al. 1995). Programs, such as WQIP and the demonstration projects, that rely almost solely on one type of assistance, financial and education, respectively, are probably not as effective as they could be in promoting the long-term adoption of alternative practices.

Local research on the economic and physical performance of recommended practices can improve practice adoption. Farmers are skeptical of practices with "national" standards when there is no local history of use to readily observe (Nowak 1991). Despite a general knowledge of which practices reduce agricultural nonpoint source pollution, a priori knowledge of which of these practices are also profitable in a particular area is often lacking. Project managers in eight USDA Demonstration Projects indicated that practice adoption was hindered at times by a lack of data to support claims that certain BMPs are effective and economically advantageous (Rockwell et al. 1991).

Published research findings do not present a very clear or consistent picture on the performance of BMPs. For example, a review of the economics of improved management systems concluded that on-farm performance of soil-conserving tillage systems varies with location, soil type, climate, level of management, and crop (Fox et al. 1991). The profitability of similar practices on the same crop appear to vary widely between regions, and even between farms within regions. Management skill may be an especially important determinant of profitability, making a priori prediction of profitability nearly impossible (Batie and Taylor 1989).

The MSEA research program provided much information on practice performance for corn/soybean agriculture in the Midwest. This research directly benefited 22 of the 90 HUAs and DPs, and 92 of the 242 WQIPs. However, this research and education program did not always directly identify the factors that are important in farmer decision-making. For example, MSEA field tests indicated that pesticide banding, ridge-till, and nitrogen fertilizer banding were profitable practices that protected and enhanced water quality. However, surveys of producers in Iowa revealed that producers were reluctant to adopt ridge-tillage because of concerns about operator skill, change in overall farming practices, and capital investment (Iowa Management Systems Evaluation Areas Project 1995). Pesticide banding was abandoned in the Ohio MSEA project because management and timing requirements were incompatible with existing operations (Ohio Buried Valley Aquifer MSEA 1995). Having available locally-based research on the economic and physical performance of recommended practices would greatly assist the adoption process and enhance program cost-effectiveness.

Interaction with non-USDA agencies, organizations, and local businesses within a watershed is important. Local environmental and resource districts such as soil and water conservation districts, drainage districts, irrigation districts, and natural resource districts may be operating in project areas. Local business and environmental groups may have some interest in water quality issues. Involving these stakeholders early in project planning would minimize future conflicts, and may bring in additional resources. Seeking and obtaining local cooperation has been identified as a strength of USDA Water Quality Program projects (Rockwell et al. 1991).

More attention to water quality monitoring and project evaluation could help determine the cost-effectiveness of alternative practices and assist in the development of targeting strategies. Program effectiveness can be enhanced when projects include ongoing performance assessments and evaluations. Progress assessment can identify problem areas in time for corrective action, and improve targeting criteria for future projects. Performance assessment is also required under the Government Performance and Results Act.

Water quality monitoring is the most defensible means for evaluating project and program effectiveness (Gale et al. 1993). Lack of water quality monitoring in USDA Water Quality Program and Water Quality Incentive Projects, especially at the basin scale, has been cited as a reason why the ultimate impacts on water quality of many of the projects may never be known (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996). Only a handful of projects will be able to assess whether water quality actually improved. An effective monitoring program must establish a baseline of water quality conditions and be maintained long enough to account for lags in the movement of agricultural pollutants and natural fluctuations in weather.

An acceptable alternative to monitoring may be water quality modeling. A number of models have become available in recent years that can predict pollutant loading at the watershed level. Some of these were examined for use by some of the HUAs (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996). One advantage of models is they can be used to develop implementation goals, in terms of practices and critical areas. A drawback of models is they must be carefully calibrated to local conditions. Simulation models may be best suited as a planning tool, for identifying critical areas and for establishing treatment performance goals.

In addition to water quality monitoring, an effective mechanism for tracking changes in crop management in the project area would enhance progress assessment. Such information enables interim assessments of whether program goals are being achieved, and where additional assistance might be needed. This can be especially useful when there are lags between practice implementation and changes in water quality. Land management tracking requires that a land management baseline be established. It is also necessary to track management changes on those fields not receiving assistance. Not observing changes on non-participating fields could make interpretation of water quality changes more difficult.

Water quality programs need to have a long-term focus. Agriculturally related water quality problems and their solutions often consist of processes that can take extended periods of time to complete, and require careful up-front planning. Adequate time in the project timetable must be set aside for pre-implementation planning, including the establishment of water quality and land management baselines, setting of practice implementation targets, and conducting field research on the performance characteristics of alternative practices (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996). Many of the WQP projects were implemented without adequate up-front preparation, resulting in inadequate baselines and lack of knowledge about practice performance (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996).

The voluntary adoption of alternative practices is often a lengthy process, from first learning about a practice through implementation (Nowak 1991). Farmers must be convinced that there is a problem to be addressed, learn about alternative management practices, adopt the practices, and successfully implement them over time. While educational, technical, and financial assistance are designed to speed up this process, it can still be a slow one. The successful completion of a project is therefore enhanced when adequate resources are made available over the entire adoption process.

The physical processes that connect on-field management changes to changes in water quality often take years, especially for ground water (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1994). Water quality monitoring needs to be maintained beyond the time assistance ends in order to present the best opportunity for measuring a project's impacts on water quality.

Farmer interest in education, technical and financial assistance is enhanced when the threat of regulations is in the background. Despite the onerousness of regulation to many in the farm community, the threat of future regulatory action can play an important role in promoting alternative production practices without placing overly burdensome costs on farmers. Results from the RCWP and other programs suggest voluntary approaches supported by regulatory capabilities may be the most effective means of reducing pollution from agricultural sources (Gale et al. 1993). Regulations clarify goals, and provide impetus for farmers to search for alternatives that may in fact maintain or even enhance net returns. Regulations may even be favored by farmers if the efforts of conscientious farmers are recognized and "bad actors" are punished. The expectation of meaningful enforcement against noncompliance was apparently a key factor in maintaining the willingness of producers to implement Conservation Compliance plans under the 1985 Farm Act (Esseks and Kraft 1991). Threat of regulation has been found in farmer surveys to be an inducement for adopting improved practices (Nowak et al. 1992). Several states include regulatory components in their watershed management strategies as a way of speeding adoption of best management practices (U.S. General Accounting Office 1995).

Future. The lessons learned from the WQP and past USDA water quality programs provide important guidance for future programs. The new Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) that was established in the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 will continue the course set by the Water Quality Program. This Act gives USDA a long-term commitment for providing education, technical, and financial assistance in targeted, watershed projects. Many of the observations outlined above are reflected in EQIP, including targeting, increased and flexible financial assistance, a full range of education, technical, and financial assistance, and an emphasis on evaluation and cost-effectiveness.

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Marc O. Ribaudo, agricultural economist, Economic Research Service, 1301 New York Ave. NW, Room 508, Washington, DC 200054788. The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Economic Research Service.
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Title Annotation:US Dept of Agriculture
Author:Ribaudo, Marc O.
Publication:Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Date:Mar 22, 1998
Words:6656
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