Innovating Policy for Effective and Efficient Control of Nutrient Pollution: Challenges and Paths Forward

James Shortle

PennState College of Agricultural Science, USA

Water pollution control has been a top environmental policy priority in developed countries for decades, an area of significant regulation, and the focus of enormous public and private spending. Yet significant water quality problems remain in these countries, often related to inadequate control of nutrient pollution from agricultural nonpoint sources. Inadequate control of agricultural nonpoint pollution is typically the result of poor policy choices rather than an absence of policy initiatives. In consequence, policy reforms and innovations to improve the effectiveness of agricultural controls are essential to progress.

This presentation will examine the agricultural nonpoint water pollution policy problem in the context of the United States. In the US as in many other developed countries, water pollution remains a pervasive problem. For example, a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessment finds that 46% of U.S. rivers and streams are in poor biological condition, 25% are in fair condition, and only 28% are in good condition. This situation is in large degree due to fundamental flaws in the nation’s water quality policy architecture. Point sources are regulated heavily and effectively, though at very high cost.  Total discharges and especially discharges per capita of conventional pollutants from point sources have been substantially reduced. In contrast, agricultural nonpoint sources are generally lightly regulated and now rank as major, and often leading, cause of ongoing water quality problems. The same architecture has resulted in pollution controls that are unnecessarily expensive, to the point that the incremental costs of additional water quality protection exceed the benefits. Innovations in water quality policy are essential to improve the effectiveness and economic efficiency of water quality protection.

Decades of research on relationships between farming systems and water quality and technologies to reduce agricultural nonpoint pollution provide the sector with a substantial technological toolkit for water quality protection. The policy challenge is to induce the implementation of the right practices in the right places (within fields and watersheds) to achieve water quality goals at least cost. The existing policy architecture relies excessively on voluntary implementation of controls by farmers, focuses on effort rather than outcomes, and allocates scarce resources inefficiently across places and sectors. The presentation describes policy reforms that can improve water quality and reduce the total social costs of water pollution control.