Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Voluntary Stewardship: Will More of the Same Produce Different Results?

By Tom Prout, SWCS Canadian Region Director

I write this article with the knowledge gained from more than 35 years of experience in watershed management in southern Ontario and with the anticipation that it may generate some response from conservation practitioners, farm organizations, and farm leaders.

For at least seven decades, many landowners have been implementing stewardship projects and applying a conservation ethic when making management decisions. These voluntary actions are beneficial and do contribute to the maintenance of water quality levels. However, considering our ongoing concerns with the health of our watersheds, perhaps it is time to reflect on the following questions:

  • Is voluntary stewardship taking too long and using too much money to actually achieve the water quality society desires?
  • Are changing farming practices and farming technologies outpacing the good that can be achieved by voluntary stewardship?
  • Are we using the correct Best Management Practices (BMPs) and stewardship practices in the right places?
  • Do we need new and improved BMP and stewardship practices? 
  • What are the confounding factors that prevent us from making bigger improvements in the water quality of our lakes, rivers, and streams?
  • What will the next generation of BMPs and stewardship look like?

Canada and the United States are two of the world’s leading countries, but are our societies committed to changing our lifestyles to help improve the environment we all live in and appreciate?

For decades, farmers in southern Ontario have publicly said that they would spend more time and money on stewardship projects if they received a fair or higher price for their product. However, after two consecutive years of very high commodity prices and some record yields, I am observing the opposite reaction: less conservation tillage, higher fertilizer rates to achieve record yields, increased sales of moldboard plows, and the removal of windbreaks and forests to make larger fields. With record-high farmland prices and larger equipment, farmers seem to have less time for conservation. Perhaps it is time to let farmers manage their lands as they see fit and, instead of offering stewardship grants, set water quality standards for them to meet.

Municipalities must meet water quality standards for their sewage treatment facilities, and in some municipalities there are now water quality standards for storm water discharge that developers have to meet. Local businesses have to meet discharge standards from their processing facilities. Nonpoint source pollution is really just many forms of point source pollution combined. Farmland is being systematically drained at an ever increasing rate to increase productivity. Will these tile outlets provide a way to measure nonpoint sources of pollution? Can we realistically measure nonpoint sources at the field level and tie water quality to field scale operations?

If society wants to get serious about water quality in our lakes and streams, it may be time to set water quality standards for surface and subsurface drainage from farmland. We must determine whether society can continue to afford annual payments to encourage voluntary stewardship. In making these decisions and answering the questions listed above, we will discover what the next generation of BMPs will look like.

I am not suggesting that the decades of conservation work are all for naught, and I am not suggesting that farmers intentionally pollute. However, I do believe it is time to stop and reflect on our current approach to watershed management and ask ourselves one more question: will doing more of the same thing achieve the water quality standards we want to achieve, or will doing more of the same thing get us more of the same results? We—as in the big we, society—need to decide if we want maximum productivity from farms and some of the lowest food prices in the world at the expense of the air and water quality we need to survive.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Soil and Water Stewardship Week: Where Does Your Water Shed?

It's Soil and Water Stewardship Week, and this year's theme is "Where does your water shed?" Related events and activities will be taking place across the country from April 28th through May 5th, 2013. You can read more about the stewardship program on the National Association of Conservation Districts Web site, click the links below for news from a few states, and contact your local conservation district to learn how stewardship is put into practice in your area.

If you're like me, you're probably still wondering, "But where does my water shed?" The Watershed Information Network--put together by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Geological Survey, and the Conservation Technology Information Center (an SWCS corporate member)--is a great resource that provides general information about watersheds, maps to locate a specific watershed, and current water quality data from each location. Information about volunteer groups that work to monitor water quality and maintain watershed health is also available. Check it out and get involved!