oversight

Agriculture: USDA Needs to Better Focus Its Water Quality Responsibilities

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-07-23.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

AGRICULTURE
USDA Needs to Better
Focus Its Water
Quality
Responsibilities


                142106
Resources, Community, and
Economic Development Division

B-23948 1

July 23, 1990

The Honorable Mike Synar
Chairman, Environment,
  Energy, and Natural Resources Subcommittee
Committee on Government Operations
House of Representatives

Dear Mr. Chairman:

In response to your request and subsequent discussions with your office, this report
discusses the Department of Agriculture’s water quality activities, including, among other
things, the management and coordination of those activities.

As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce its contents earlier, we plan no
further distribution of this report until 30 days from the date of this letter. At that time, we
will send copies to interested congressional committees and the Department of Agriculture,
and will make copies available to others upon request.

This report was prepared under the direction of John W, Harman, Director, Food and
Agriculture Issues, who may be reached on (202) 275-5138, if you or your staff have any
questions. Other major contributors to this report are listed in appendix V.

Sincerely yours,




J. Dexter Peach
Assistant Comptroller General
Executive Sunmary


              The agricultural sector is the nation’s largest user of pesticides and fer-
Purpose       tilizers, and studies have shown that these chemicals are increasingly
              being found in surface water and groundwater supplies. Agricultural
              activities have been identified as a source of pollution in drinking water
              in many states. Such exposure is increasingly perceived as a threat to
              human health.

              Concerned about agricultural contamination of our nation’s water
              resources, and recognizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (IJSDA)
              unique position to potentially influence actions that can affect water
              quality, the Chairman of the Environment, Energy, and Natural
              Resources Subcommittee, House Committee on Government Operations,
              requested that GAO determine what IJSDA has done to protect water
              quality, including, among other things, assessing the management and
              coordination of its water quality activities.


              Numerous federal departments and agencies are involved in efforts to
Background    prevent, detect, or correct the contamination of our water resources,
              with major activities being carried out by the Environmental Protection
              Agency (EPA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and IJSDA. EPA estab-
              lishes drinking water standards and screens chemicals to prevent or con-
              trol their use. USGSoperates water quality monitoring programs and
              researches the movement and destination of chemicals. IJSDA researches
              water quality and related issues, provides technical assistance to
              farmers on the best ways to conserve natural resources, and educates
              users of agricultural chemicals on their use, handling, and disposal. Fur-
              ther, USDA'S close association with the agricultural community and its
              extensive network at the state and local level put it in a unique position
              to potentially influence actions that can affect water quality.

              While agricultural chemicals have increased the productivity of U.S.
              farms, their effects on the environment and human health have raised
              concerns. These chemicals pose a potential threat to farmers when they
              are applied and eventually may contaminate farm water supplies. Agri-
              cultural chemicals can also wash into surface waters or seep into
              groundwater reservoirs, thus affecting water quality hundreds of miles
              away. Nonetheless, many producers continue to use chemically intensive
              farming practices because they reduce the need for labor and increase
              their crop yields. In addition, the National Research Council and others
              have shown that IJSDA'S commodity support programs indirectly
              encourage chemically intensive farming practices. This occurs because
              support programs generally encourage farmers to produce certain crops,


              Page 2                        GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                   Executive Summary




                   such as corn, which require high levels of agricultural chemicals to
                   increase yields and thereby maximize program benefits.


                   In response to increased recognition by scientists, environmental groups,
Results in Brief   the public, and the Congress about the close link between agricultural
                   production and water quality, USDA has increased its water quality pro-
                   grams and activities and has attempted to better focus them. For
                   example, in 1986 and 1987 the Department developed policies on
                   nonpoint source pollution and groundwater quality, respectively, and in
                   fiscal year 1990 began its Water Quality Initiative that expands ongoing
                   water quality programs and starts new ones.

                   In order to better coordinate its water quality activities, IJSDA has estab-
                   lished various mechanisms, such as the Secretary’s Policy Coordination
                   Council and the Working Group on Water Quality. However, GAO found
                   that these coordinating mechanisms fall short of providing effective
                   management of the Department’s water quality activities because they
                   do not establish a single point of responsibility for planning, coordi-
                   nating, and evaluating all of USDA'S water quality activities. Such a focal
                   point would better assure that water quality-related programs, which
                   fall under the direction of various Under and Assistant Secretaries, are
                   carried out in a manner which is consistent with the water quality goals
                   of the Department. In this regard, although IJSDA plans to make changes
                   to its existing water quality policies, it does not have a single, compre-
                   hensive policy to guide its present and future activities. The two
                   existing water quality policies do not address all water quality issues
                   and can be contradictory in some instances.

                   GAO  believes that USDA needs to establish a coordinating body, supported
                   by dedicated staff, to be responsible for overseeing, coordinating, and
                   evaluating all aspects of the Department’s water quality activities. By
                   focusing its water quality responsibilities in this manner and by devel-
                   oping a comprehensive water quality policy, the Department would
                   enhance the effectiveness of its water quality activities. Without suffi-
                   cient Department-wide focus on water quality, IJSDA may lose farmer and
                   consumer confidence that the agricultural community can manage its
                   resources to supply food and fiber in an environmentally safe manner.




                   Page 3                        GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                           Executive Summary




Principal Findings

USDA Has Recently          Historically, USDA'S water quality activities have been add-ons to
Initiated Programs That    existing soil conservation programs or limited to regional surface water
                           programs. In the late 198Os, the Department instituted broader pro-
More Directly Address      grams and activities to address the contamination of surface water and
Water Quality              groundwater by agricultural chemicals. USDA has developed a Water
                           Quality Initiative for fiscal year 1990 that expands its ongoing water
                           quality programs and establishes new programs. However, USDA'S pro-
                           gram to support low-input sustainable agriculture, which shares the pri-
                           mary goals of the Department’s Water Quality Initiative, has not been
                           integrated into the initiative.
                           Other activities carried out by the Department, such as its soil conserva-
                           tion and commodity assistance programs, can also directly or indirectly
                           affect water quality. GAO believes that USDA needs to better understand
                           the nature of the relationships between these programs and to identify
                           appropriate changes to avoid conflicting goals and duplicative efforts.
                           Further, these actions will allow the Department to make the most effec-
                           tive use of its available funding resources.


USDA’s Water Quality       Ten of IJSDA'S 36 agencies are involved in water quality activities and
Responsibilities Are Not   plan to spend $155 million this year. As pointed out by USDA'S Working
                           Group on Agricultural Chemicals and the Environment in 1988, policy
Focused                    and program coordination among these agencies is essential. LJSDA uses a
                           variety of coordinating mechanisms, including the Secretary’s Policy
                           Coordination Council, ad hoc working groups, formal agreements, and
                           the President’s management-by-objectives system. However, USDA has
                           not established a single, full-time focal point or coordinating body with
                           responsibility and accountability for all of its water quality activities as
                           it has for other important cross-cutting issues such as transportation
                           and energy. Rather, in November 1989, the Department established a
                           Working Group on Water Quality, which it believes adequately focuses
                           its water quality responsibilities.
                           GAO found   that this new working group (1) does not have a full-time
                           USDA staff,  other than an individual on loan from the Department’s Agri-
                           cultural Research Service, dedicated exclusively to water quality issues;
                           (2) does not have clear responsibility for coordination with interested
                           parties outside of the Department; and (3) does not have clear responsi-
                           bility for all of USDA'S water quality activities. Because there is no full-



                           Page 4                        GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
-.
                    Executive Summary




                    time, Department-wide mechanism to oversee all water quality activi-
                    ties, responsibility remains divided among the Working Group on Water
                    Quality and the various Under and Assistant Secretaries. As a result,
                    GAO is concerned that the Department may lack the organizational struc-
                    ture needed to effectively address this issue. Also, because USDA lacks a
                    management system to effectively plan, coordinate, and evaluate its
                    water quality activities, water quality may be perceived as less impor-
                    tant by those in USDA as well as by those outside.
                    Although recent efforts show an increased emphasis on water quality,
                    IJSDA still does not have a comprehensive water quality policy. Policies
                    on nonpoint source pollution, issued in 1986, and groundwater protec-
                    tion, issued in 1987, focused attention on some types of water contami-
                    nation, but they do not address all current water quality concerns and
                    can be contradictory. For example, the existing policies do not address
                    point source contamination of surface waters or provide a mechanism to
                    encourage adoption of the policies the Department has developed. In
                    addition, the policies do not recognize that practices used to protect
                    some types of water sources could harm others. USDA officials told GAO
                    that the Department is in the process of developing a comprehensive
                    water quality policy and that they expect the policy to be available for
                    departmental review around mid-summer 1990.


Recommendations     GAO  recommends that the Secretary of Agriculture
                  . establish a Department-wide focal point or coordinating body, similar to
                    those established for issues such as transportation and energy, with full-
                    time staff support and responsibility and accountability for all of USDA'S
                    water quality activities and
                  . develop a comprehensive water quality policy that addresses all agricul-
                    tural water quality concerns.
                    To prevent other LJSDA activities from adversely affecting its water
                    quality efforts, GAO also recommends that the Secretary build on USDA'S
                    recent efforts to determine how USDAcommodity programs and soil con-
                    servation activities, which may have competing goals or objectives,
                    affect the adoption of farming practices to protect water quality.


                    Although GAO did not obtain formal agency comments on a draft of this
Agency Comments     report, GAO discussed the information developed during its audit work
          Y         with IJWA officials and made adjustments as necessary.




                    Page 5                       GAO/RCED80-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Contents


Executive Summary                                                                                           2

Chapter 1                                                                                                   8
Introduction             Human Activities Threaten Water Quality
                         Agriculture Contributes to Water Contamination
                                                                                                         9
                                                                                                        10
                         Objectives, Scope, and Methodology                                             12

Chapter 2                                                                                               14
USDA Has Not             Historically, USDA Has Not Emphasized Water Quality
                              Concerns
                                                                                                        14
Emphasized Water         USDA Has Recently Expanded Its Water Quality                                   17
Quality Until Recently        Activities

Chapter 3                                                                                               22
Better Management        USDA Has a Varied Organizational and Coordinative
                            Structure
                                                                                                        22
and Coordination of      USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities Are Not                                  27
USDA’s Water Quality        Adequately Focused
Activities Are
Essential
Chapter 4                                                                                              36
Conclusions and          USDA Lacks an Effective Management Structure and a
                             Comprehensive Policy for Water Quality
                                                                                                       36
Recommendations          Other USDA Efforts Affect Water Quality                                       38
                         Recommendations                                                               38

Appendixes               Appendix I: USDA’s Working Group on Agricultural                              40
                             Chemicals and the Environment
                         Appendix II: USDA’s Water Quality Initiative                                  42
                         Appendix III: Staffing for USDA’s Water Quality Efforts                       44
                         Appendix IV: USDA’s Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture                         46
                             Program
                         Appendix V: Major Contributors to This Report                                 50

Tables    *              Table 2.1: Statutory USDA Programs That Benefit Water                          16
                             Quality




                         Page 6                      GAO/RCED80-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
 A.
          Contents




          Table 111.1:Staffing of USDA Agencies With Water                                45
              Quality Efforts, Estimated for Fiscal Year 1989
          Table IV. 1: LISA Program Regions and Host Institutions                         47

Figures   Figure 2.1: Funding for USDA Programs Targeted or                               20
               Related to Water Quality, Fiscal Years 1988-91
          Figure 3.1: USDA’s Organization                                                 23
          Figure IV. 1: Approved USDA LISA Projects by Region,                            48
               Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989




          Abbreviations

          ASCS       Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service
          EPA        US. Environmental Protection Agency
          GAO        U.S. General Accounting Office
          LISA       low-input sustainable agriculture
          MB0        management-by-objectives
          MOU        memoranda of understanding
          scs        Soil Conservation Service
          USDA       U.S. Department of Agriculture
          USGS       U.S. Geological Survey
          WGACE      Working Group on Agricultural Chemicals and the
                         Environment


          Page 7                       GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Chapter 1

Intrtiuction


                   Because water is a basic necessity of life, it is one of the most important
                   natural resources in the United States. Degradation of its quality could
                   have a major impact on the nation’s welfare. Studies show that agricul-
                   ture is one of the main contributors to water degradation, and there is
                   increasing public awareness that agricultural chemicals may be a threat
                   to human health and the environment. Although our understanding of
                   factors affecting water quality is still incomplete, recent findings have
                   raised concerns about the safety of our water supply, particularly the
                   threat posed by some agricultural practices:

               . About 166,000 miles of rivers and 8.1 million acres of lakes have been
                 polluted by nonpoint sources, according to Environmental Protection
                 Agency (EPA) estimates.’
               l Groundwater contamination has been found in all 60 states, according to
                 several federal agencies, and in 26 states there has been documented
                 evidence of contamination resulting from normal field usage of agricul-
                 tural pesticides.
               l Agricultural nonpoint pollution was identified by 34 states as a major
                 reason they failed to meet their own water quality goals.
               . The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers groundwater in
                 1,437 of the 3,160 counties in the United States at risk of contamination
                 by fertilizers, pesticides, or both.

                   Water contamination from agricultural sources affects both farmers and
                   the general public. Despite concerns about potential health and economic
                   risks, farmers continue to use conventional agricultural practices
                   because of economic incentives and a lack of information about
                   alternatives.

                   Numerous federal departments and agencies are involved in efforts to
                   prevent, detect, or correct the contamination of our water resources,
                   with maor activities being carried out by EPA, the US. Geological
                   Survey (USGS), and USDA. EPA activities include establishing drinking
                   water standards and screening chemicals to prevent or control their use.
                   USGSoperates water quality monitoring programs and carries out
                   research on the movement and destination of chemicals. USDA activities
                   include conducting research on water quality and related issues, pro-
                   viding technical assistance to farmers on the best ways to farm and con-
                   serve natural resources, and educating agricultural chemical users on
                   the use, handling, and disposal of such chemicals. Further, USDA'S close

                   ’ Nonpoint pollution originates from diffuse sources, such as farm fields, as opposed to a distinct
                   discharge point, such as an outflow pips or production facility.



                   Page 8                                   GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                   Chapter 1
                   Introduction




                   association with the agricultural community and its extensive network
                   at the state and local level puts it in a unique position to potentially
                   influence actions that can affect water quality.


                   Groundwater contamination is a critical issue because groundwater is
Human Activities   the major source of water for many Americans. Groundwater consti-
Threaten Water     tutes 96 percent of all available freshwater in the United States. Fifty
Quality            percent of the general population and at least 96 percent of rural
                   residents get their drinking water from groundwater sources. Agricul-
                   tural irrigation accounts for 68 percent of the groundwater withdrawals
                   in the United States.

                   Preventing groundwater contamination is essential because most con-
                   taminants are not easily removed. Once they reach groundwater, con-
                   taminants may persist for many years because groundwater moves
                   slowly and there is no sunlight below the surface to break down the
                   contaminants. The cost of removing contaminants from groundwater far
                   exceeds the cost of preventing contamination.

                   Evidence of human contamination of our nation’s water has been found
                   above ground in surface water formations such as lakes and rivers, as
                   well as underground in aquifers where groundwater is stored.
                   Originating from both discrete, identifiable point sources and diffuse
                   nonpoint sources, contaminants have degraded the quality of our water.

                   In the past, efforts focused on the control of point sources of surface
                   water pollutants. Although progress has been made in this area, many of
                   the nation’s lakes, rivers, and estuaries continue to experience nonpoint
                   source pollution. EPA now considers nonpoint sources the major cause of
                   most current surface water pollution problems.

                   Our groundwater resources are also in danger. The expansion of ground-
                   water testing, coupled with advanced analytical techniques, has
                   revealed increasing numbers and types of contaminants found in
                   groundwater. Although the total extent or seriousness of groundwater
                   contamination is still not known, most states have reported groundwater
                   pollution from at least one type of man-made or naturally occurring con-
                   taminant. These contaminants include nitrates, petroleum, pesticides,
                   bacteria from septic systems, and ice-melting salts applied to roads.

                   Information about the dangers of water contamination, and the publicity
                   generated by the detection of pesticides in wells across the country, has


                   Page 9                       GAO/RCED-99-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                          Chapter 1
                          Introduction




                          In response to a request from the Chairman, Environment, Energy, and
WUJCLbW   -,pe,
flhinntirma
          Cnn
                and
              V CUP
                          Natural Resources Subcommittee, House Committee on Government
Methodology               Operations, and subsequent discussions with Subcommittee staff, we
                          reviewed USDA'S water quality activities to determine

                      . what programs USDA has operated to protect water quality and the
                        environment;
                      l how much funding and staffing water quality and related programs
                        have received (for a discussion of staffing, see app. III);
                      l what the findings and recommendations of USDA working groups on the
                        environment were and whether the recommendations are being
                        implemented;
                      l how water quality and related programs are being managed and coordi-
                        nated; and
                      . if there is a need for a centralized, departmental coordinating body or
                        focal point for water or environmental issues within USDA.

                          To accomplish these objectives, we looked at USDA'S historical activities,
                          recent activities, and future plans for water quality-related programs,
                          including the Water Quality Initiative that IJSDA began during fiscal year
                          1990. We gathered information on the staffing and budgets of these pro-
                          grams and discussed their management and coordination with Depart-
                          ment officials. We also examined the work of IJSDA'S Working Group on
                          Agricultural Chemicals and the Environment (WGACE) and its Low-Input
                          Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program.

                          We interviewed officials and gathered documentary information from
                          the USDA agencies with major water quality responsibilities: the Animal
                          and Plant Health and Inspection Service, the Agricultural Research Ser-
                          vice, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), the
                          Cooperative State Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the
                          Extension Service, the Forest Service, the National Agricultural Library,
                          and the Soil Conservation Service (scs). LISA program officials and
                          former members of WGACE also provided us with information. In addi-
                          tion, we spoke with the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and the Assis-
                          tant Secretaries and Deputy Under Secretary responsible for water
                          quality-related activities. Budget information was provided by the
                          Office of Budget and Program Analysis. Other agencies, including EPA
                          and USGS, were also consulted because they have responsibilities in the
                          area, as were relevant interest groups. Finally, we discussed manage-
                          ment issues with individuals who had previously run major government
                          departments or agencies.



                          Page 12                      GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Chapter 1
Introduction




increased ground and surface water salt levels in the West and South-
west. Direct contamination by point sources, such as chemicals that drift
while being applied by aircraft or improper disposal of chemical con-
tainers, also contributes to water degradation,

The public increasingly perceives that farm chemicals found in ground-
water threaten human health and that limiting their use is warranted.
Although the medical consequences of exposure to contaminated water
are not always clear, some of the dangers have been identified. Fertil-
izers can cause nitrate contamination of water. The best documented
human health risk from nitrates is infant death and illness from
methemoglobinemia (“blue baby disease”). The risks to adults who use
water contaminated with pesticides or nitrates are not as well
understood.

The health effects many other chemicals have on humans have not been
clearly established. Little is known about the effects of long-term expo-
sure to low levels of pesticides or the interactive effects of multiple
chemicals. Since all pesticides are designed to be toxic to some form of
life, exposure under some circumstances could affect human health.:]

Farm workers and their families are particularly at risk because they
are close to the sources of agricultural contamination. Aside from health
concerns, however, water contamination also poses a threat to farmers’
and ranchers’ economic well-being. Contaminated water can reduce the
productivity of crops and livestock or cause livestock illnesses that raise
expenses and lower outputs. Land itself may be damaged over time, low-
ering production levels and property values.

Despite the risks and costs involved, farmers continue to use conven-
tional agricultural practices because of a lack of knowledge about both
the potential consequences of chemical contamination and farming
methods that reduce the risk while maintaining profitability. In some
cases, conclusive results on the side effects of certain chemicals or prac-
tices do not exist. In others, information is available but may not be get-
ting to those who could use it.




“Some pesticides known to be harmful to human beings in high concentrations have been removed
from the market but continue to be found in groundwater.



Page 11                               GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                       Chapter 1
                       Introduction




                       increased public concern over surface water and groundwater quality.
                       Public pressure, in turn, has led to increasing state and local efforts to
                       monitor and regulate the use of agricultural and other chemicals.


                       The agricultural sector is the nation’s largest user of pesticides and fer-
Agriculture            tilizers, and studies have shown that these chemicals are increasingly
Contributes to Water   being found in our surface water and groundwater supplies. A 1984 EPA
Contamination          report on nonpoint source pollution cited 44 states where agriculture is
                       an identified nonpoint pollution problem. In its 1988 interim report on
                       pesticides in groundwater,’ EPA reported that 26 states had confirmed
                       various amounts of 46 different pesticides in their groundwater
                       resulting from normal agricultural practices. Eighteen of these pesti-
                       cides (involving 24 of the 26 states) were discovered at levels equal to or
                       greater than health advisory levels established or proposed by EPA.

                       Since World War II, agriculture in the United States has become more
                       specialized and dependent on chemical inputs. Before then, farmers
                       often grew a variety of crops and raised livestock on the same farm.
                       This type of operation was labor-intensive but required fewer chemicals.
                       As more farmers specialized in certain crops or livestock, manufactured
                       chemicals replaced labor, increasing farm productivity. In addition,
                       many producers increased their use of agricultural chemicals because
                       federal farm programs encouraged them to specialize in crops such as
                       corn and cotton that tend to require more chemicals. Some federal poli-
                       cies also discouraged crop rotations, thus encouraging monoculture, the
                       growing of a single crop year after year. On farms that practice mono-
                       culture, higher levels of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are needed to
                       replenish the soil and control pests. For example, the use of nitrogen
                       fertilizer to grow corn increased from about 58 pounds per acre in 1964
                       to 137 pounds per acre in the 1980s.

                       Although modern, large-scale, chemically assisted farming practices
                       have benefited farmers and consumers by raising productivity, they can
                       also endanger water supplies. Not all chemicals applied to fields are
                       absorbed by crops or the soil. The excess can run off into surface waters
                       or seep down through the soil to contaminate groundwater reservoirs,
                       thus affecting water quality hundreds of miles away. Even natural
                       materials such as manure can contaminate water when it leaves the
                       field in high concentrations. Further, the irrigation of saline soils has

                       ‘Pesticides in Ground Water Data Base: 1988 Interim Report, llnited States Environmental Protection
                       Agency (Dec. 1988).



                       Page 10                                GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Chapter 1
Introduction




To examine how USDA coordinates the delivery of information and
research findings from its programs to farmers and ranchers, we inter-
viewed officials in two midwestern states-Minnesota and Illinois.
These states have active agricultural sectors overlying important water
sources, have identified water quality concerns, and have participated
in IJSDA activities related to water quality. We discussed USDA’Sprograms
in these states with USDA state and county staff and with state and local
environmental and agricultural officials.

We discussed our findings with USDA officials and have included their
comments where appropriate. However, as requested, we did not obtain
official comments on this report.

Our review work was conducted between February 1989 and December
1989 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing
standards.




Page 13                      GAO/RCED-SO-162 USDA's Water Quality Responsibilities
Chapter 2

USDA Has Not Emphasized Water Quality
Until Recently

                           Historically, USDA has conducted voluntary programs with indirect
                           water quality benefits, but these programs were designed primarily to
                           address soil conservation. Recently, in response to external pressures
                           and recommendations of a USDA working group, the Department devel-
                           oped its fiscal year 1990 Water Quality Initiative. The initiative expands
                           the ongoing programs and establishes new programs to protect water
                           quality from agricultural chemical contamination through research, data
                           base development, and education and technical assistance by 10 IJSDA
                           agencies. The Water Quality Initiative does not include activities under
                           the Department’s LISA program even though it shares the initiative’s
                           focus on agricultural chemical management.


                           As a major user of the nation’s land and water, agriculture can have a
Historically, USDA         significant impact on water quality. Yet, USDA has only recently empha-
Has Not Emphasized         sized water quality concerns in its programs. Because USDA'S responsibil-
Water Quality              ities are diverse, water quality is only one of a number of competing
                           priorities within the Department. When it has addressed water quality,
Concerns                   USDA has relied on soil conservation programs and regional programs to
                           protect surface water.


Water Quality Has Been     USDA  operates programs to accomplish numerous goals including dissem-
One of Many Departmental   inating information, supporting farm incomes, boosting production and
                           exports, ensuring a safe food supply, managing the nation’s forests,
Priorities                 improving nutrition, and promoting land and water conservation efforts.
                           Often, these programs have competing objectives, and some may even
                           endanger water resources.

                           For example, the National Research Council and others have shown that
                           IJSDA'Scommodity support programs encourage practices that could
                           degrade water quality. About two-thirds of the nation’s cropland is
                           enrolled in commodity programs. These programs have historically
                           encouraged the production of crops like corn and cotton which tend to
                           require high levels of chemicals and increase soil erosion. Because these
                           programs pay farmers according to how much they produce, they
                           encourage farmers to use large amounts of fertilizers and chemicals and
                           to expand chemically intensive crop production on marginal lands to
                           achieve higher yields. Some farm program provisions also discourage
                           crop rotations, thus encouraging continuous, single-crop farming, known
                           as monoculture. Single-crop operations can require the use of higher
                           levels of pesticides and fertilizers than farming methods that employ
                           crop rotations to replenish the soil and break pest cycles. USDA'S 1990


                           Page 14                      GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
 .
                            Chapter 2
                            USDA Has Not Emphasized Water Quality
                            Until Recently




                            farm bill proposal calls for flexible crop bases that would allow farmers
                            to rotate their crops without being penalized.

                            USDA  also operates programs to prevent soil erosion and flooding and to
                            estimate water availability. Some of the programs designed to prevent
                            soil erosion, however, can be harmful to water quality. For example,
                            conservation tillage and other best management practices promoted by
                            the Department to reduce soil erosion and runoff can require higher
                            levels of pesticide use and increase the seepage of chemicals into
                            groundwater. Also, the conservation reserve and sodbuster provisions of
                            the Food Security Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-198) take fragile land out of pro-
                            duction but can increase pressure on farmers to maintain or raise yields
                            by using additional chemicals on their remaining cropland.


USDA Has Addressed          USDA has operated programs to reduce soil erosion for over 50 years.
Water Quality Goals         During that time, most USDA conservation programs were designed to
                            stop erosion by offering producers financial and technical assistance to
Through Soil Conservation   adopt conservation measures. Some of these programs were later
and Regional Programs       amended to allow assistance for practices to reduce pollution of surface
                            water as well as soil erosion. Table 2.1 lists the major statutory USDA
                            programs with water quality provisions,




                            Page 16                           GAO/RCED-SO-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                                                          Chapter 2
                                                          USM Ii- Not Emphasid           Water Quality
                                                          Until Recently




Table 2.1: Statutory USDA Programs That Benefit Water Quality
                              Year
Program name           authorized Main program purpose                                             Water quality provision8 added                    Year added
Small Watershed                           1936 Provides assistance to encourage                    ~o~;o+ality     management and pollution                   1954
   Program                                     practices that prevent flooding                                                                         --
Agncultural                               1936 Provides cost-sharing for adopting                  Agricultural pollution abatement                           1971
   Conservation                                conservation practices
   Program
Great Plains                              1956 Promotes conservation in areas with high            Reducing agricultural water pollution                      1969
   Conservation                                erosion levels
   Program
Water Bank Proaram                        1970 Protects wetlands throuah annual                    a                                                                 b

      _         .~_.. .--._ .-----_            payments to farmers      -
Colorado River                            1974 Directs the Interior Department to protect          USDA role in establishing an on-farm                       1964
   Salinity Control                            water quality in the Colorado River                 salinity control program
   Program
._._._,._ _.         . ..~~ ..---. --.
                                                                                                                                                                     b
Rural Clean Water                         1980 Promotes water improvement in 21                    a
   Proaram                                     selected areas
Conservation                              1985 Encourages planting of permanent cover              Use of “filter strips?                                     1988
 _ Reserve     Program
    --.... . -“l_”.._....-..~-.-- -- --        on highly erodible croplands
                                                                                                                                                                     b
Conservatron                              1985 Requires the adoption of conservation               a
   Compliance                                  practices in order to receive USDA
   Provision                                   benefits
                                                                                                                                                                     b
Sodbuster/                                1985 Denies USDA benefits to those who                   a
   Swampbuster                                 convert erodible lands or wetlands for
   Provisions                                  agriculture
                                                         aWater quality benefits were included in original legislation.

                                                         “Data not applicable
                                                         ‘Strips of land along bodies of water that serve as filters for sediment and chemical runoff from farm
                                                         fields.


                                                         The Conservation Reserve Program is a recent example of how conser-
                                                         vation programs have been amended to include water quality goals.
                                                         When the program was approved in the 1985 Food Security Act, it
                                                         offered rental payments to producers taking highly erodible land out of
                                                         production for 10 years and assistance in planting a protective vegeta-
                                                         tive cover. Regardless of the erodibility of the land, the program now
                                                         provides funding for “filter strips” along bodies of water. Further, USI~A
                                                         has included in its fiscal year 1990 farm bill proposal a provision to
                                                         expand the program to include areas that may be vulnerable to water
                                                         contamination.

                                                         Other conservation programs address regional surface water pollution
                                                         problems. As with its soil conservation programs, USDA'S main role in
                                                         regional water protection programs has been to promote the voluntary
                                                         adoption of conservation practices through education and technical and


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                          Chapter 2
                          USDA Has Not Emphasized Water Quality
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                          financial assistance. In some areas of the country, such as the Great
                          Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Gulf Coast, Tennessee Valley, and
                          Colorado River Basin regions, cooperative efforts to improve surface
                          water quality involve USDA, other federal agencies, and state and local
                          agencies.


USDA Funds Help Support   Many of USDA'S research and education activities involve cooperative
Local Water Quality       funding and administration with state and county governments for local
                          water quality problems. State agricultural experiment stations and the
Activities                Cooperative Extension Service have used some of their funds from
                          USDA'S Cooperative State Research Service and Extension Service for
                          local water quality activities. The state agricultural experiment stations
                          have combined federal, state, and other funds for research on chemical
                          movement, pesticide and nitrogen application rates, and other issues
                          related to water quality. Some states have hired their own local water
                          quality specialists, and state and local Cooperative Extension Service
                          staff have included water quality concerns in their training of pesticide
                          applicators and conservation education programs. In one state we vis-
                          ited, the local project staff responsible for administering the Rural Clean
                          Water Program project (the Garvin Brook project in southeast Minne-
                          sota) expanded the project’s scope to include groundwater protection,
                          even though the program was established to focus on surface waters.


                          During the late 19809, USDA expanded its water quality activities.
USDA Has Recently         Responding to outside pressures and recommendations of a IJSDA
Expanded Its Water        working group, the Department developed a Water Quality Initiative for
Quality Activities        fiscal year 1990 that expanded ongoing programs and established new
                          ones. USDA is also continuing its LISA program, which could improve
                          water quality, although the program is not included in the Department’s
                          Water Quality Initiative.


USDA Water Quali.tY       Several events led to the USDA Water Quality Initiative. The Congress
Initiative Is Being       was considering revisions to federal pesticide legislation and had intro-
                          duced numerous pieces of groundwater protection legislation. EPA had
Implemented               begun a national survey of pesticides in drinking water wells and had
                          proposed a pesticide strategy for groundwater protection. State govern-
             ii           ments had proposed and implemented nonpoint source water quality
                          programs. The discovery of pesticides in some drinking water supplies
                          had also increased public apprehension. In addition, there was a new



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emphasis on water quality in USDA'S 1988-97 National Conservation Pro-
gram plan and pressure from the Executive Office of the President.

Responding to these events, in January 1988 the former Secretary of
Agriculture accepted the recommendation of three Assistant Secretaries
that he establish the Working Group on Agricultural Chemicals and the
Environment (WGACE). The working group, which included senior-level
officials from 13 USDA agencies, reviewed Department policies and
served as an interim clearinghouse for information on agricultural chem-
ical use and related environmental concerns, including water quality. In
June 1988, WGACE issued a report on its findings and recommended that
the Secretary establish a focal point for agricultural chemical manage-
ment in the Department, This report was a major impetus for the Secre-
tary’s decision to develop USDA'S Water Quality Initiative beginning in
fiscal year 1990. As of March 1990, the Secretary had not yet approved
the WGACE report, A more detailed discussion of WGACE and its findings
and recommendations appears in appendix I.

USDA'S  Water Quality Initiative is designed to determine the relationship
between agricultural activities and groundwater quality and to develop
and encourage the adoption of economically effective agricultural and
chemical management practices that protect water quality. To accom-
plish these goals, USDA will carry out work in three areas: (1) research
and development, (2) data base development and evaluation, and (3)
education and technical assistance. A detailed explanation of the initia-
tive is included in appendix II.

IJSDA expects its Water Quality Initiative to be more comprehensive and
better coordinated than its previous water quality activities. The initia-
tive differs from past programs because it focuses on agricultural chemi-
cals and groundwater contamination, whereas previous programs had
centered on the effects of soil runoff on surface waters. The initiative
also addresses general concerns about agricultural nonpoint pollution.

The initiative is also expected to be better coordinated than prior water
quality programs, which were managed using a decentralized, agency-
by-agency approach. For the initiative, USDA developed a 5-year Water
Quality Program Plan. According to that plan, many of the initiative’s
activities will be joint efforts among a number of USDA agencies, as well
as EPA, USGS, state agricultural experiment stations, and other state and
local entities. In addition, intradepartmental committees are responsible
for the ongoing coordination of each of the initiative’s activities. All the



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agencies involved in the initiative will participate in coordinated evalua-
tions of their respective activities.

In fiscal year 1990, the Department plans to spend $155 million for its
water quality programs, a $45-million increase over fiscal year 1989.
The Department’s water quality budget includes funding for programs
with direct water quality benefits as well as funding for other programs
that relate to water quality. As shown in figure 2.1, during the past few
years most of what USDA considered its water quality budget went to
these related programs. For example, in fiscal year 1988 USDA spent $6
million on programs specifically targeted to water quality (mostly
regional surface water programs), while devoting $85 million to pro-
grams related to water quality, such as research on pesticides, nutrients,
and hydrology, and education and technical assistance for water conser-
vation In fiscal year 1989, $8 million went to programs specifically
targeted to water quality and $102 million to programs related to water
quality. By fiscal year 1990, USDA'S funding request for efforts targeted
specifically to water quality had increased to $49 million out of its $155
million overall water quality budget. About $20 million of the targeted
total will go to the new programs of the initiative. In its fiscal year 1991
budget request, USDA is proposing to fund $83 million for efforts
targeted specifically to water quality out of its $207 million water
quality budget. About $33 million of the targeted total will be for new
programs of the initiative.




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Flgure 2.1: Fundlng for USDA Program8
Targeted or Related to Water Quality,
                                        222   Dollrnln   Mllllonr
Flrcal Years 1998-91
                                        210
                                        105                                   r-
                                        180
                                        165
                                        160
                                        135
                                        120
                                        105
                                        99
                                        75
                                        60
                                        45
                                        30
                                         15

                                          O B-B
                                               1980       1999      1990           1991
                                               Fiscal bara

                                                         New. Targeted Programs
                                                         Ongoing, Targeted Programs
                                                         Ongoing, Related Programs

                                        Notes: Fiscal year   1990levels   are esttmated. Ftscal year 1991 levels reflect the Department’s   budget
                                        request.

                                        Ongoing programs were funded prior to ftscal year 1990. New programs were funded beginning in fiscal
                                        year 1990. Targeted programs make up the Department’s Water Quality Inittative.

                                        Funding levels for targeted programs rnclude all program funding each year. The funding figures for
                                        related programs include only the amount of each program’s funding that USDA considers related to
                                        water qualtty each year.




Related LISA Program Not                Although USDA'S Water Quality Initiative increases the Department’s
                                        focus on water quality, it does not include all of USDA'S activities that
Included in USDA’s Water                could have an impact on water quality.
Quality Initiative
                                        USDA'S LISA program offers grants to research and promote agricultural
                                        production methods that reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and
                                        protect the environment. LISA program efforts to reduce chemical use on
                                        the farm could augment the Department’s efforts to protect water
                                        quality, but the LISA program has not been included in USDA'S water
                                        quality planning.




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The Water Quality Initiative and the LISA program are distinct programs,
but they have similar goals. LISA'S efforts to develop cost-effective and
environmentally benign agricultural practices are similar to the Water
Quality Initiative’s efforts to develop practices that protect water
quality. Both programs focus on the effects of agricultural chemical use
and were designed to combine the efforts of various USDA agencies and
outside groups through interagency coordinating groups. Concern about
water quality was one of the reasons the LISA program was adopted, and
such concerns are addressed in some LISA projects. Some Water Quality
Initiative research and demonstration projects will include LISA-type pro-
grams. Appendix IV explains the LISA program in more detail.

Despite the similarities in their goals, the two programs operate sepa-
rately. The Water Quality Program Plan states that USDA'S Water Quality
Initiative will complement the LISA program. However, each program has
its own separate committee to coordinate the efforts of its participating
organizations.




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Chapter 3

Betkr Management and Coordination of
USDA’s Water Quality Activities Are Essential

                         Water quality is an important and complex issue that cuts across agency
                         lines and requires strong USDA leadership and commitment. Close coordi-
                         nation and cooperation are essential between the numerous USDA agen-
                         cies as well as with other federal departments and agencies, state and
                         local governments, and agribusiness.

                         The Department has recently begun to better manage and coordinate its
                         water quality activities. It has established arrangements to develop and
                         coordinate programs, and, as discussed in chapter 2, the Department
                         recently prepared a b-year Water Quality Program Plan. Nevertheless,
                         USDA has not clearly established responsibility and accountability for
                         planning, coordinating, managing, and evaluating all of its water quality
                         activities. This lack of clear responsibility may have also contributed to
                         USDA'S not having developed a comprehensive water quality policy. As a
                         result of these problems, the Department may not be in a good position
                         to transfer information on the results of its water quality efforts to
                         users in the field. If farmers and consumers are to believe that USDA is
                         serious about water quality, it is important for the Department to bring
                         a focus to these responsibilities.


                         To carry out its many missions, responsibilities, and programs, IJSDA
USDA Has a Varied        employs an extensive network of agencies and offices and a large,
Organizational and       highly decentralized field office structure. In addition, a growing
Coordinative Structure   number of emerging policy issues that USDA must deal with cut across
                         agency lines, requiring the close coordination and cooperation of
                         numerous departmental agencies as well as other federal agencies and
                         outside groups. Water quality is one such issue. To manage its water
                         quality activities, USDA has established or participates in a variety of
                         coordinating arrangements within its existing organizational structure.


USDA’s Organization.a1   The Department is headed by the Secretary of Agriculture, a Deputy
Structure                Secretary, two Under Secretaries, and seven Assistant Secretaries.
                         Thirty-six individual agencies are divided into 9 groups, each headed by
                         1 of the Under or Assistant Secretaries. In addition, there are four
                         offices that report directly to the Secretary. Figure 3.1 shows the
                         Department’s organizational structure at the time of our review.




                         Page 22                      GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
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                                  Retter Management and Coordination of
                                  USDA’s Water Quality Activities
                                  Are Essential




Figure 3.1: USDA’s Organization




                                  Source: USDA


                                  Ten IJSDA agencies operating under the jurisdiction of 5 different Under
                                  or Assistant Secretaries (International Affairs and Commodity Pro-
                                  grams, Economics, Science and Education, Natural Resources and Envi-
                                  ronment, and Marketing and Inspection Services) are involved in water
                                  quality activities. These 10 agencies are the Agricultural Research Ser-
                                  vice, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, ASCS, the Coopera-
                                  tive State Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the




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                                 Extension Service, the Forest Service, the National Agricultural              Library,
                                 the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and scs.

                                 ASCS, SCS, and the Extension Service are primarily responsible for deliv-
                                 ering USDA water quality programs through their extensive field net-
                                 works. ASCS administers water quality programs and provides financial
                                 assistance to eligible program participants. scs provides technical assis-
                                 tance to AS3 as well as to landowners and operators participating in
                                 USDA soil and water conservation programs. ASCS and scs maintain field
                                 offices in over 86 percent of the 3,150 counties in the United States. The
                                 Extension Service, the federal partner in the Cooperative Extension
                                 System with its 21,000 state and local employees and field offices in vir-
                                 tually every county in the United States, is the educational arm of USDA.
                                 The Cooperative Extension System transfers research information
                                 through educational demonstration activities and provides program out-
                                 reach services.


Coordination of USDA             To assist it in managing and coordinating its water quality activities, the
Water Quality Activities         Department has established or participates in a variety of formal and
                                 informal arrangements. Most of these mechanisms seem to have been
                                 developed on an as-needed basis, with little overall planning for how
                                 these activities should be coordinated Department-wide.

The Secretary’s Policy           In August 1989, the Secretary of Agriculture established the Secretary’s
Coordination   Council           Policy Coordination Council. This Council meets at the call of its
                                 Chairman, the Deputy Secretary, to formulate departmental policy
                                 where cross-cutting issues require intradepartmental coordination and
                                 to resolve internal differences that arise during the implementation of
                                 the Council’s policy decisions. Council members include the Deputy Sec-
                                 retary, the Under and Assistant Secretaries, the General Counsel, and
                                 the Director of Public Affairs. Under the Council, working groups are
                                 being appointed by the Deputy Secretary to address specific cross-cut-
                                 ting issues.

Specific Groups Established to   On November 1, 1989, the Deputy Secretary established the Working
Study or Coordinate Water        Group on Water Quality to coordinate intradepartmental activities
Quality or Related Issues        related to water quality. Chaired by the Deputy Assistant Secretary for
                                 Science and Education, the working group’s responsibilities include (1)
                 Y               reviewing USDA'S policies and programs relating to water quality and
                                 reporting to the Secretary’s Policy Coordination Council on their imple-
                                 mentation, effectiveness, appropriateness, and adequacy; (2) developing
                                 and recommending to the Council appropriate strategies and guidelines


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Are Eksential




for carrying out programs relating to water quality; and (3) providing
advice and guidance to the Council on existing and emerging issues
related to water quality with an emphasis on potential impacts on agri-
culture. USDA officials participating in this working group also told us
that the primary purpose of this group as it now exists is to coordinate
the Department’s water quality activities. The working group includes
representatives of four Assistant Secretaries, the Office of Budget and
Program Analysis, and the 10 agencies involved in water quality activi-
ties at. the Department. Under this working group, individual committees
have been established to develop and coordinate programs in the three
areas being emphasized in the Department’s Water Quality Initiative: (1)
research and development, (2) data base development and evaluation,
and (3) education and technical assistance.

USDA  also coordinates its water quality activities with those of other fed-
eral departments and agencies through the President’s Office of Science
and Technology Policy’s Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engi-
neering, and Technology. The primary vehicle for federal coordination
of water quality activities is the Subcommittee on Ground Water, which
was established in December 1987 as a component of the Council’s Com-
mittee on Earth Sciences. The Subcommittee, whose membership
includes representatives from 11 federal organizations, including USDA,
USGS, and EPA, is responsible for coordinating federal nonregulatory
groundwater activities. In June 1989, the Subcommittee published a
report that provides an overview of federal scientific and technical
activities focusing directly on groundwater.’

In addition to the Subcommittee on Ground Water, USDA participates in
other interagency committees or working groups that have been formed
to coordinate specific water quality activities. For example, to facilitate
interagency coordination of USDA’S Midwest Initiative, the Department,
USGS, and EPA established an interagency committee in early 1989 to
develop a coordinated plan to study the effects of agricultural practices
on the occurrences of pesticides and fertilizers in ground and surface
water in the Midwest. Similarly, other interagency committees have
been established to deal with specific water quality programs such as
the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Colorado River Salinity
Control programs.


‘Federal Ground-Water Science and Technology Programs: The Role of Science and Technology in the
Management of the Nation’s Ground-Water Resources,Subcommittee on Ground Water, Committee on
Earth Sciences; Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology; Office of Sci-
ence and Technology Policy (June 1989).



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Memoranda of Understanding          To formalize cooperative and coordinative arrangements, USDA has
                                    established memoranda of understanding (MOU) with other federal agen-
                                    cies and between its own individual agencies, Some of the more signifi-
                                    cant MOU dealing with water quality activities include the following:

                                l   A June 1988 MOU between USDA'S Extension Service and scs details each
                                    agency’s responsibilities in implementing the Department’s water
                                    quality policies and identifies cooperative arrangements between the
                                    two agencies.
                                l   An April 1988 USDA and Department of the Interior MOU addresses
                                    research on the impact of agricultural practices on groundwater quality.
                                    Specific collaborative activities have been attached to the MOU. For
                                    example, Annex I to the MOU, dated June 1988, identifies research
                                    responsibilities, joint activities, and implementation and coordination
                                    responsibilities for groundwater quality between USDA'S Agricultural
                                    Research Service and scs, and Interior’s USGS.
                                l   A 1984 USDA MOU with EPA provides for the exchange of information and
                                    coordination of activities concerning water quality. Under this MOU,
                                    USDA'S scs and Extension Service have developed individual agreements
                                    detailing cooperative arrangements with EPA.

Informal Coordinative Efforts       Federal agency officials pointed out that, in the past, most of the intra-
                                    and interdepartmental coordination of water quality activities has been
                                    at the staff, or working, level. According to these officials, agency per-
                                    sonnel at the technical level have historically worked closely together on
                                    a day-to-day basis, exchanging information on their programs and plans.
                                    The officials further pointed out that this informal type of interaction
                                    has generally had a very positive influence on program coordination.

                                    Also, according to federal agency officials, high-level officials from the
                                    federal departments and agencies with water quality activities meet
                                    periodically to discuss specific water quality programs or issues and to
                                    formulate policies, The officials noted that such meetings have become
                                    more common as water quality and related issues have received greater
                                    national attention.

Management-By-Objectives            In April 1989, President Bush called for establishing a management-by-
System                              objectives (MHO) system to keep him informed on the progress in major
                                    areas of policy, programs, and management. From the agricultural
                                    issues that IJSDA submitted, the President selected two USDA objectives
               J                    for inclusion in the MBO system: (1) the expansion of U.S. agricultural




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                       Are Essential




                       markets and (2) the encouragement of environmentally sound agricul-
                       tural production and land management policies. A major element of the
                       latter objective is the Department’s Water Quality Initiative.

                       The goal of the MBO system is to establish specific milestones for each of
                       the objectives selected, develop a tracking and reporting system for
                       them, monitor progress toward achieving the objectives, and ensure that
                       adequate resources are provided within overall fiscal constraints to
                       guarantee their implementation. USDA has provided the Office of Man-
                       agement and Budget with a statement of the Department’s overall
                       strategy for achieving the selected objectives and with the critical mile-
                       stones for measuring the progress of a limited number of activities
                       under each of the objectives. The Department is also in the process of
                       establishing a tracking and reporting system for the objectives selected.

                       The MBO system will not track all of the activities that make up USDA'S
                       total water quality effort. Instead, the Department has established mile-
                       stones and will track only a selected number of its water quality activi-
                       ties. Those selected will then serve as “indicators” of the progress (or
                       lack thereof) of USDA'S total water quality effort. When fully imple-
                       mented, the ME@ system is expected to provide some measure of the
                       Department’s timeliness in implementing certain water quality
                       activities.


                       Although the Department has several mechanisms to coordinate its
USDA’s Water Quality   water quality activities, USDA'S top management has not provided the
Responsibilities Are   leadership needed to effectively manage these activities by establishing
Not Adequately         a single point of responsibility and accountability for implementing
                       them. Further, the Department has not developed a comprehensive
Focused                departmental policy on water quality. As a result of these problems,
                       USDA may not be in a position to effectively transfer information on the
                       results of its water quality activities to users in the field.

                       Attention and commitment by top management, particularly the Secre-
                       tary, are crucial to the successful implementation of effective water
                       quality policies and related programs at USDA. Without such leadership
                       initiative and commitment, USDA may not be able to limit agriculture’s
                       effects on water quality.




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USDA Has Not Established    The Secretary has not established a permanent, full-time, Department-
Clear Responsibility for    wide mechanism to oversee planning, coordinating, managing, and eval-
                            uating all of the Department’s water quality activities. Currently, this
Managing All of Its Water   responsibility is divided between the Working Group on Water Quality
Quality Activities          and the various Under and Assistant Secretaries who have water
                            quality-related programs.

                            Nearly l-l/Z years after WGACE recommended a focal point to address
                            agricultural chemicals and related water quality concerns, the Depart-
                            ment established the Working Group on Water Quality. This working
                            group is the Department’s first effort to establish a focal point for water
                            quality issues. According to the Deputy Assistant Secretary, the working
                            group will meet periodically, on an “as needed” basis, to coordinate
                            intradepartmental activities related to water quality. Unlike offices that
                            have been established in USDA for other cross-cutting issues such as
                            transportation, energy, and biotechnology, the Working Group on Water
                            Quality will not have a full-time staff. The group will, therefore, have to
                            rely on staff with other responsibilities in their respective agencies to
                            oversee key USDA water quality activities.

                            Although the working group’s stated responsibilities include reviewing
                            water quality policies and programs for effectiveness, appropriateness,
                            and adequacy, it does not have the authority to monitor the progress of
                            the Department’s total water quality effort and to change the directions
                            of programs, if necessary. As established, this group is overseeing only
                            the targeted programs of the Department’s Water Quality Initiative.
                            These targeted programs are the smallest part of the Department’s total
                            water quality effort, and the only part being planned and integrated
                            Department-wide. The major portion of USDA'S water quality activities
                            are still being planned and implemented at the Under and Assistant Sec-
                            retary level, agency-by-agency, in the Department’s annual planning
                            cycle. This cycle provides for limited interaction between agencies’ pro-
                            gram planning or implementation.

                            As initially established, the Working Group on Water Quality’s opera-
                            tional nature (Le., meeting periodically with part-time staff) and its level
                            of responsibility and authority to oversee and coordinate a limited set of
                            water quality activities, raise questions concerning the Department’s
                            management of this issue. Two former federal managers told us that it is
                            important to have a full-time staff assigned in order to achieve the
                            Department’s water quality goals. These individuals said that a full-time
                            staff did not necessarily have to be large, but it must be competent and
                            knowledgeable on the issue.


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    As of May 1990, the working group had one USDA employee, who is
    essentially full-time, on loan from the Agricultural Research Service,
    and another person on loan from EPA to help coordinate the Depart-
    ment’s water quality activities. These officials noted that at this time
    the working group does not have independent financial or administra-
    tive support from the Department. Support for the group’s activities
    comes from individual USDA agencies, such as the Agricultural Research
    Service.

    USDA  officials we spoke with believe that the current arrangement is
    adequate. They said the working group is responsible for coordinating
    all of the Department’s water quality activities and that the group plans
    to broaden its oversight of such activities over time. In terms of having
    responsibility to change USDA water quality programs, these officials
    noted that while the working group does not have direct responsibility
    to do this, they believe it could be accomplished by raising concerns to
    the Secretary’s Policy Coordination Council, which is chaired by the
    Deputy Secretary.

    The former federal managers also believed that a central responsibility
    and authority was necessary to oversee and coordinate all water quality
    activities; otherwise, agencies in a department as large as USDA may
    work at cross-purposes or implement programs that are duplicative. In
    fact, we pointed out in U.S. Department of Agriculture: Interim Report
    on Ways to Enhance Management (GAO/RCED-90-19, Oct. 26, 1989) that, as
    a result of the work by WGACE, many agencies were surprised to learn of
    the activities of the other USDA agencies. The former federal managers
    also said that it is important for the Secretary to express his support for
    the Department’s water quality activities and make himself directly
    accessible to those responsible for these activities. This effort would
    help to signal that the Department is serious about water quality and
    that the person(s) in charge has the Secretary’s support.

    Managing and coordinating such an important and complex issue
    without focusing responsibility, accountability, and authority also
    makes it difficult for USDA to establish short-and long-term objectives
    that reflect its overall water quality goals. That is, the Working Group
    on Water Quality may be focusing on one set of objectives for the
    Department’s Water Quality Initiative while the individual agencies are
    developing another set of objectives for water quality-related programs
    for which they are responsible. Under USDA'S existing structure, there is
    no centralized management system that could address such potentially



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conflicting objectives. The Department’s MB0 system will not be suffi-
cient because it is too limited in scope to provide the Department-wide
perspective that is needed. Further, the MB0 system, which will monitor
programs by focusing on several “indicator” programs, is not designed
to provide a qualitative evaluation of water quality programs.

A management system that would consider water quality activities in
light of Department-wide objectives could help ensure that IJSDA is suc-
cessful in reaching goals established in its water quality policy. Such a
system would also be important in planning, implementing, and evalu-
ating water quality and related programs and would assist the Depart-
ment in answering questions about what is working and what is not.
This information could be used to redirect existing water quality pro-
grams, develop new ones, or determine whether new or different
approaches are needed to address this issue. Without a focused manage-
ment system to regularly carry out these activities Department-wide,
USDA water quality activities may continue to be a collection of indi-
vidual efforts with varying goals and objectives. If this occurs and the
Department does not assess the extent of the water quality problem,
agriculture’s role, and possible solutions, farmers and state and local
governments may experience increased costs to treat contaminated
water resources in the future. Without sufficient Department-wide focus
and emphasis on water quality, USDA also may lose farmer and consumer
confidence that agriculture can manage its resources to supply food and
fiber in an environmentally safe manner.

Finally, the Department still does not have a single focal point for water
quality who will be responsible for internal as well as external coordina-
tion of its numerous activities. The memorandum establishing the
working group mentions only internal coordination responsibilities for
the group. The memorandum does not discuss the working group as an
identifiable focal point for external coordination with other federal
departments or agencies or with state-level representatives for water
quality issues. Because the Department’s policies and programs may
affect the activities of other federal agencies, such as USGS and EPA, clear
responsibility for such coordination is essential. Further, these federal
agencies, and perhaps others, may develop information as a result of
their activities that could add to USDA'S understanding of water quality
issues. In this regard, USDA has entered into agreements with both of
these federal agencies. However, much of the exchange of information
will occur between USGS or EPA and specific USDA agencies, such as scs
and Extension Service. It is particularly important, therefore, that an
easily identifiable focal point, at the Department level, be responsible


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                           Chapter 3
                           Better Management and Coordination of
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                           Are Essential




                           for overseeing these activities. It seems equally important that such a
                           focal point be responsible for coordinating Department activities with
                           the states, since this is where USDA'S policies and programs will ulti-
                           mately be implemented. Although the Working Group on Water Quality
                           was not formally given responsibility for external coordination, USDA
                           officials noted that the working group is carrying out this activity. USDA
                           officials also agree that better coordination with states and the private
                           sector is important, but told us that limited resources have prevented
                           them from establishing such relationships.


USDA Has Been Slow in      IJSDA'Swater quality policy is comprised of its formal policy statements
Developing Water Quality   and its prioritization of long-term objectives for the Department. With
r),1:,,.                   respect to the former, USDA has been slow to develop a policy for
I- UllUY                   addressing water quality concerns associated with agricultural
                           production.

                           Although agriculture consumes the majority of water in the United
                           States and has been identified as a major contributor to water degrada-
                           tion, the Department had not developed a basic water quality policy
                           until several years ago. Instead, USDA had only a general conservation
                           policy based on the idea of resource stewardship. This policy made indi-
                           vidual landowners responsible for deciding how to use the resources on
                           their land. The Department believes that, with assistance from IJSDA and
                           other interested parties, landowners have been responsible managers, or
                           stewards, of their natural resources. Nevertheless, recent studies raise
                           concerns about the threat that agriculture poses to our nation’s water
                           supplies.

                           The Department has recently developed policies to directly address two
                           aspects of agriculture’s role in the degradation of water quality. In
                           December 1986, it issued a policy on nonpoint source pollution that sup-
                           ports the continued use of best management practices and voluntary
                           actions by landowners to deal with nonpoint sources of agricultural pol-
                           lution. Less than a year later, in November 1987, USDA issued a policy on
                           groundwater. This policy supports the prudent use of agricultural chem-
                           icals and states that USDA will advocate practices that can prevent
                           harmful contamination so as to minimize, or make unnecessary, regula-
                           tory restrictions on the use of agricultural chemicals.

                           Concerning policy development through prioritization of objectives, IJSDA
                           has continued to emphasize soil conservation over water quality. The



                           Page 31                           GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
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Chapter 3
Better Management and Coordination of
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Are Essential




Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977 requires the Depart-
ment to evaluate the nation’s soil and water resources periodically and
to prepare plans based on those appraisals. The first National Conserva-
tion Program plan, released in 1982, established the reduction of soil
erosion as its top priority. That program plan did not list water quality
as a priority issue, designating it instead as a “national long-term objec-
tive.” In its 1988 update of this plan, USDA elevated water quality to a
priority issue that would be emphasized in existing USDA programs of
research, education, and technical and financial assistance. Erosion con-
trol continues to be the top priority of the 1988-97 program.

These policies and priorities represent the Department’s current position
on the protection of water resources and, according to the WGACE docu-
ments, appear to have resulted from reactions to public and political
pressure rather than USDA'S concern about setting long-term goals to
address this issue. For example, in its review of the Department’s poli-
cies on the use of agricultural chemicals and their effect on the environ-
ment, WGACE pointed out that USDA policy and strategy development in
this area has been largely reactive to outside pressures and influences.
In July 1988, WGACE told the Secretary that the Department needed to
get ahead of the situation “so we don’t continue to respond in the crisis
mode.” Concerned about the potential for increased chemical regulation,
WGACJE, in an April 1989 draft of its working papers, stated that an alter-
native would be more prudent use of agricultural chemicals to limit their
effects on the environment. A senior USGS official we spoke with believes
much of USDA'S emphasis on water quality is occurring because of polit-
ical pressures. The official expressed concern, therefore, that if the
political atmosphere changes, USDA may deemphasize water quality in
favor of a new, pressing political issue.

Although the existing formal policy statements are a first step in
addressing water quality problems resulting from agricultural practices,
they are not sufficiently comprehensive to address all aspects of water
quality or to resolve potential conflicts when they occur. For example,
the current policies do not prohibit point source pollution of surface
waters by agricultural producers. Although other laws and regulations
may apply, the lack of a similar policy at USDA could create the impres-
sion that the Department condones such activities.

The two overlapping policies on nonpoint source pollution and ground-
water are also duplicative and potentially confusing. By attempting to
comply with the nonpoint source policy, an operator may increase the
danger to groundwater. This could occur, for example, when an operator


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chapter 3
Better Management and Coordination of
USM’r Water Quality Activities
Are Essential




uses ridge tilling practices to reduce the runoff of agricultural chemicals
in compliance with the nonpoint source pollution policy. When pre-
vented from running off the field, water is more likely to percolate
through the soil to groundwater supplies, taking chemical contaminants
with it. While it may not be easy to decide, in all cases, which water
resources to protect first, the Department should be able to deal with
these situations when they occur. Such decisions will have to be based
on the geological conditions of the soil and water in the area, weather
conditions, and other factors related to resource use. By developing a
comprehensive water quality policy, USDA could identify many of these
potential problems and provide itself the lead time to better understand
them.

These policies also do not take into consideration other longer-term
issues, such as how to ensure compliance or the effect of these policies
on other departmental agencies. According to two individuals with pre-
vious experience in managing federal departments or agencies, USDA'S
water quality policy should cite the type of penalties that might be used
for noncompliance and generally state how these penalties would be
applied. This information would help signal to those affected that the
Department is serious about water quality. Without some compliance
provisions, the policy might be ineffective.

In addition, USDA'S water quality policies do not consider the possible
impacts on other departmental activities. Economic incentives provided
by usr&administered commodity programs can promote farming activi-
ties that are contrary to the Department’s water quality policies. For
example, government policy encourages farmers to strive for high yields
on program crops, which in most cases means intensive use of agricul-
tural chemicals-the same chemicals that have been associated with
long-term danger to soil and water quality. On the other hand, USDA
relies on farmers to be good stewards of their land and water. USDA'S
water quality policy should take these conflicting factors into
consideration.

Finally, the former federal managers believed that the development of a
long-term departmental policy on water quality should actively incorpo-
rate input from other federal agencies as well as from the states. By
considering the goals and objectives of these entities, the Department
will be in a better position to develop a single, comprehensive policy
that will guide its actions on water quality into the next century. In
recent discussions with USDA officials, they said that the Department is
in the process of developing a single, comprehensive water quality


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-                                                                                                            .--
                          Chapter 3
                          Better Management and Coordination of
                          USDA’s Water Quality Activities
                          Are Essential




                          policy. According to these officials, this policy is expected to broadly
                          state the Department’s commitment to water quality. They estimated
                          that a policy statement should be available for Department review by
                          mid-summer 1990.


Focusing Water Quality    In the two states we visited, we identified several obstacles to an effec-
                          tive and widespread water quality educational effort. We believe that if
Responsibility May        the Department focuses its water quality responsibility, it would signal
Improve the Transfer of   that water quality is to receive increased emphasis and thus reduce
Information               these obstacles and enhance the transfer of water quality information.

                          One such obstacle is IBDA'S traditional reliance on state and local deci-
                          sion-making bodies to set educational priorities. With over half of exten-
                          sion funding coming from state and local sources, USDA educational
                          activities are influenced by state extension offices and county advisory
                          boards. In Minnesota, for example, local needs and priorities are identi-
                          fied annually through a county-level needs assessment process. County
                          priorities are then forwarded to the state extension committee. As a
                          result, IJSDA'S educational activities generally reflect the level of
                          emphasis placed on the issue at the state and local level. By focusing its
                          responsibility for water quality, USDA could elevate the interest this
                          issue receives from state and local level decision-making bodies.

                          Another obstacle we identified is the scarcity of readily transferrable
                          research information on alternative agricultural practices. According to
                          officials of two major farm organizations, agricultural practices will not
                          change unless the alternatives are based on sound economic and scien-
                          tific research. IJSDA officials pointed out that such research will take
                          time to compile, analyze, and replicate for several reasons:

                          Although research into reducing chemicals has recently gathered
                          momentum, land-grant universities have traditionally been more con-
                          cerned with a chemical’s effectiveness on agricultural crops than with
                          its environmental impact.
                          Groundwater contamination levels, sources, and potential solutions vary
                          not only from state to state and county to county, but even on the same
                          farm. The site-specific nature of this issue heightens the importance of
                          local research and demonstration activities.

                          Similarly, focusing IJSDA'S responsibility for water quality could send a
                          signal to the research community regarding the importance of this issue
                          and the need for increased research in these areas.


                          Page 34                           GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
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     Chapter 3
     Better Management and Coordination of
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     Are Essential




     Finally, farmers receive information concerning pesticide and nutrient
     use from a wide range of sources besides USDA. These include their own
     previous experiences, neighboring farmers, local dealers, agricultural
     chemical company representatives, farm magazines, and private consul-
     tants. Consequently, it would be difficult for USDA to change farm atti-
     tudes and behaviors, particularly if water quality is not a high-priority
     issue in the Department. By focusing its responsibility for water quality,
     IJSDA may become a more important source of credible information about
     the extent of water quality problems in a given area and what actions
     farmers need to consider.

     Largely because of the lack of USDA leadership, some states and localities
     have taken the initiative to address water quality concerns. For
     example, in Minnesota, one of the two states we visited, the Minnesota
     Extension Service recently created two regional water quality extension
     positions on a 2-year experimental basis. The positions are jointly
     funded by the Minnesota Extension Service and the participating coun-
     ties. These regional agents service a number of counties and are respon-
     sible exclusively for water quality activities-directing  educational
     activities on the impact of agricultural practices on water quality; con-
     ducting educational programs on drinking water purity, closure of aban-
     doned wells, and waste management; and advising county officials
     responsible for developing county water management plans under sec-
     tion 319 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.




     Page 35                           GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Chapter 4

Conclusionsand Recommendations


                                Water is an important natural resource. Because it is a major user of the
                                nation’s land and water, the agricultural sector has a significant effect
                                on water quality. USDA has a long history of activities to promote conser-
                                vation, but has only recently begun to focus those activities on the pro-
                                tection of the nation’s water from agricultural contamination. The
                                Department has initiated new programs to assist farmers, has attempted
                                to improve coordination of its water quality activities, and is considering
                                changes to its water quality policies. However, USM still needs to make
                                some changes to its current management structure and water quality
                                policies. We believe these changes would increase the level of attention
                                the Department gives water quality while enhancing its ability to con-
                                vince farmers, who depend on water for personal and production needs,
                                and consumers, who associate farm practices with water quality and
                                food safety, that the Department is serious about the protection of this
                                vital natural resource. The Department also needs to consider how other
                                farm program activities affect water quality and make appropriate
                                changes to avoid conflicting goals.


                     Several considerations lead us to conclude that the Department’s respon-
USDA Lacks an        sibilities need to be better focused if USDA is to establish and accomplish
Effective Management 1ets water quality goals: (1) the importance of water as a national
Structure and a      resource, (2) public perception about its quality and the effect of this
Comprehensive Policy quality   on human health, and (3) the fact that water quality falls under
                     the jurisdictions of numerous USDA agencies. A full-time focal point for
for Water Quality    water quality and related environmental issues, together with a compre-
                                hensive water quality policy, would help to provide that focus.

                                Nearly l-1/2 years after the WGACE recommendations were made, the
                                Department established its Working Group on Water Quality. The WGACE
                                report called for a focal point with full-time staff and responsibility for
                                coordinating chemical management and environmental programs within
                                USDA and with other interested parties. The working group that was
                                recently created has one USDA staff person who is essentially full-time,
                                meets only periodically, is directly responsible for only part of USDA'S
                                water quality efforts, and does not have clear program accountability or
                                responsibility for coordination outside of USDA.

                                We believe that the lack of a Department-wide focal point or coordi-
                                nating body to manage water quality issues and programs will hamper
                                USDA'S efforts in this area. Without adequate full-time staff that is
                                responsible and held accountable for water quality activities, other



                                Page 36                      GAO/RCED-96-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Chaptar 4
Conclwlow   and Recommendatiow




departmental priorities may take precedence. The size of the Depart-
ment and the varying missions of its agencies require more Department-
wide planning and management of water quality issues to avoid duplica-
tion of efforts and conflicting objectives. Because other federal and state
agencies also have water quality responsibilities, coordination with
these other organizations is also essential. We believe that a strong focal
point at the federal level would enhance water quality activities in the
states. We also believe that if there is not greater Department-wide
focus and emphasis on water quality, USDA may lose farmer and con-
sumer confidence that agriculture can manage its resources in an envi-
ronmentally safe manner.

Some states have recognized the need for a focal point and have
appointed state or regional specialists to coordinate local water quality
activities. This idea of designating specialists with water quality respon-
sibilities may merit attention by the Secretary of Agriculture.

Even though USDA has been operating programs related to water pollu-
tion for more than 36 years, it has only recently developed official poli-
cies encouraging producers to consider the effects their production
practices could have on water quality. The Department’s current poli-
cies on nonpoint source pollution and groundwater protection emphasize
the importance of water quality, but USDA continues to rely on voluntary
actions by producers. That may not be enough. Some producers may not
take actions to protect water quality, or individual actions that are
taken may work at cross purposes or conflict in other ways with
broader national or state-level concerns. In this regard, USDAofficials
told us they plan to develop a single, comprehensive water quality
policy that will be ready for departmental review by about mid-summer
 1990.

Although USM is considering changes to its policies, we believe that the
timing of the existing policies and their lack of comprehensiveness
demonstrate USDA'S lack of commitment to water quality issues. The two
existing policies were developed, to a large extent, in response to
growing public concern about agricultural threats to water quality.
There is concern that these policies could be deemphasized just as easily
in the future as new issues shift the Department’s priorities. The lack of
a long-term perspective is also evident because the policies do not
address all aspects of water quality, including point source surface




Page 37                          GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                       Chapter 4
                       Conclusions and Recommendations




                       water contamination, the potential conflict between surface and ground-
                       water protection, and penalties to encourage compliance. USDA'S develop-
                       ment of a single, comprehensive policy this summer will provide
                       important clues about the Department’s commitment to water quality.


                       Water quality is only one of a number of priorities shared by USDA and
Other USDA Efforts     its agencies. Programs in other areas such as soil conservation and com-
Affect Water Quality   modity assistance can also affect water quality. Before major policy
                       changes can occur, the Secretary needs to understand how these activi-
                       ties interact and how they affect a farmer’s decisions in the field.

                       It is not clear how current farm policies affect water quality. Some agri-
                       culture experts fear that policies that promote high production levels by
                       encouraging chemical use and discouraging crop rotations have contrib-
                       uted to the contamination of water. Others are concerned that reducing
                       chemical use will hamper the productivity of agricultural producers.
                       USDA has taken some initial steps toward a better understanding of how
                       some of these policies may be influencing production and water quality
                       activities and has proposed changes to the Food Security Act of 1985 in
                       this regard. These proposals include, among other things, targeting the
                       Conservation Reserve Program to areas that may be vulnerable to water
                       contamination as well as allowing for flexible crop bases so farmers can
                       plant crops in rotation without being penalized. The Department needs
                       to continue these efforts and identify appropriate changes to avoid com-
                       peting goals among its various policies.


                       In order for IJSDA to improve the management and coordination of its
Recommendations        water quality activities, we recommend that bhe Secretary of Agricul-
                       ture clearly establish responsibility and accountability for the Depart-
                       ment’s water quality efforts by creating a permanent, full-time focal
                       point for water quality. The focal point should have a small full-time
                       staff responsible for planning, managing, coordinating, and evaluating
                       all of the Department’s water quality activities and assessing these
                       activities in light of Department-wide objectives, The focal point should
                       also coordinate the Department’s water quality activities with related
                       departmental activities, such as its LISA program, as well as with the
                       efforts of other federal and state government entities. Finally, the focal
                       point should have authority to redirect or make recommendations to the
                       Secretary to redirect the Department’s water quality activities, as well
                       as have access to and support from the Secretary. To enhance the
                       transfer of water quality information in the field, the Secretary may


                       Page 38                           GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Chapter 4
Conclusions and Recommendations




also want to consider the merits of establishing state or regional special-
ists to coordinate local water quality activities.,,/

To avoid the confusion and contradictions created by overlapping poli-
cies, we also recommend that the Secretary of Agriculture develop a
comprehensive policy that demonstrates the importance of water
quality, regardless of the source of the contamination or the location of
the water. Although the Department’s current activities to develop such
a policy are a move in the right direction, the policy should also include
the possibility of penalties to help ensure participation if voluntary
efforts are not successful. A comprehensive water quality policy should
also consider the interrelationship of soil, water, and other natural
resources, and acknowledge the trade-offs that sometimes are necessary
when designing conservation measures.

Because USDA'S water quality efforts could be adversely affected by
some of the Department’s other activities, we also recommend that the
Secretary build on recent efforts to determine how the Department’s
commodity, soil conservation, and other activities affect its efforts to
protect water quality. Such a task should determine the types of infor-
mation that farmers use when making production decisions and identify
appropriate penalties and incentives to ensure that water quality activi-
ties serve both national conservation and private property interests.
Such a study could be carried out by the focal point GAO recommended
above.




Page 39                           GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Appendix I

USDA’s Working Group on Agricultural
Chemicals and the Environment

                  The Secretary of Agriculture, in response to events occurring outside the
                  Department during the late 19809, established the Working Group on
                  Agricultural Chemicals and the Environment (WGACE) in January 1988
                  to review USDA policies, develop strategies, and serve as an interim
                  clearinghouse for agricultural chemical issues. Although the focus of
                  this temporary working group was agricultural chemicals and their
                  impact on the environment, WGACE placed special emphasis on the
                  impact of agricultural chemicals on water quality. The members of the
                  working group were senior-level officials from 13 USDA agencies.

                  As a result of its work, the group prepared a pair of documents in June
                  1988 summarizing its findings, recommendations, and accomplishments,
                  as well as background information on agricultural chemicals and the
                  environment and the benefits farmers would gain from stronger USDA
                  leadership on the issue. The WGACE report had not been approved as of
                  March 1990.

                  WGACE issued nine findings and one formal recommendation. Although
                  the findings dealt generally with environmental issues, water quality
                  was often mentioned as an environmental concern. WGACE identified cur-
                  rent USDA efforts in the area of agricultural chemicals and the environ-
                  ment and suggested that uso~ needs to

              l conduct research and compile data on the extent and effects of current
                agricultural chemical use and ways to avoid future contamination,
              . provide additional information and assistance to farmers and rural
                residents on the prudent use of agricultural chemicals,
              l foster and provide incentives for reduced chemical use, and
              . cooperate fully with other federal agencies working in the agricultural
                chemical management area.

                  WGACE    also stated that the Department had used ad hoc committees for
                   interagency policy coordination and development but that these commit-
                   tees were not well designed for developing and coordinating joint inter-
                   agency programs and did not provide an easily identifiable focal point
                   for interdepartmental coordination with external interests. Therefore,
                  the group recommended that the Secretary of Agriculture create a
                   Department-level Executive Policy Committee on Agricultural Chemi-
                   cals, chaired by the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. The committee
                   would include the relevant Assistant and Under Secretaries of Agricul-
                  ture and be authorized a small support staff. It would (1) recommend
                  joint act-      by USIBA agenc%~, (2) facilitate internal and external coordi-
                  nation of agricultural chemical mwment            programs, (3) serve as a


                  Page 40                        GAO/ltCED-90-162 USM’s Water Quality Responsibilities
    Appendix I
    UBQA’r Working Group on Agricultural
    Chemicala and the Envlromnent




    clearinghouse for related information and legislative initiatives, and (4)
    pursue other actions to improve agricultural chemical management,
    including addressing the findings of the WGACE report.




Y




    Page 41                                GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Qua&y Responsibilities
Appendix II

USDA’s Water Quality Initiative


                In fiscal year 1990, IJSDA began implementing its initiative to focus
                Department efforts on water quality. The initiative establishes new pro-
                grams and expands ongoing efforts in three areas: (1) research and
                development, (2) data base development and evaluation, and (3) educa-
                tion and technical assistance.

                Research efforts are designed to determine the extent of the ground-
                water problem, improve understanding of chemical leaching, and pro-
                vide remedies for existing contamination problems. The Department
                plans to address these concerns by conducting basic studies on ground-
                water contamination and chemical movement. The research will also
                identify improved agricultural production systems-better management
                of soil, water, and chemicals-that    are economically and environmen-
                tally sound. Finally, improved methods will be developed to sample and
                evaluate contaminated groundwater. USDA'S Agricultural Research Ser-
                vice, Cooperative State Research Service, and state land grant universi-
                ties have the lead role in USDA'S research plan. In addition to this
                targeted research, USDA plans to continue ongoing research on subjects
                related to water quality.

                New data bases will make information available to evaluate the eco-
                nomic and environmental impacts of current and newly developed agri-
                cultural production practices. USDA plans to develop a data base on
                agricultural chemical use and related farm practices for use in preparing
                computerized maps that can analyze land use in relation to soil charac-
                teristics and water quality. USDA'S Economic Research Service and
                National Agricultural Statistics Service will lead these efforts. Addition-
                ally, USDA'S National Agricultural Library’s Water Quality Information
                Center will provide public information and referral services, and
                operate an electronic bulletin board system on water quality.

                A wide range of education and technical assistance programs will be
                undertaken to improve the dissemination of existing and newly devel-
                oped information on chemical management and production practices.
                Staff will be trained and field guides will be updated to include current
                information on water quality. On-farm demonstration projects will
                exhibit the viability of practices that reduce the movement of agricul-
                tural chemicals. Eight of these projects are planned for fiscal year 1990,
                followed by eight more in each of the next 2 fiscal years. Moreover,
                existing outreach activities will be increasingly targeted to areas with
                identified water quality concerns. Funding for interagency programs in
                areas with identified water quality problems, such as the Chesapeake



                Page 42                       GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Appendix II
USDA’II Water Quality Initiative




Bay and Great Lakes, will also be increased. USDA'S scs and Extension
Service will jointly lead the education and technical assistance efforts.

One project in particular, the Corn Belt (or Midwest) Initiative, demon-
strates how the components of the Water Quality Initiative interrelate
and complement ongoing work outside of USDA. The Midwest was chosen
as the site of the first regional project because it is an extensively
farmed area overlying potentially vulnerable aquifers. The Corn Belt
Initiative is primarily a research effort that will attempt to determine
the extent and causes of groundwater contamination, and develop new
agricultural practices that protect both groundwater and profitability.
In addition to the research, technical assistance with soil and topograph-
ical information will be provided by scs. A data base will be developed
to aid in the storage and dissemination of data. USDA'S efforts will also be
coordinated with USGS' Midcontinent Initiative, which covers a similar
geographical area (but examines the area below the soil or root zone)
and EPA'S ongoing survey of pesticides in groundwater. Finally, the
results of the Corn Belt Initiative will be made available to researchers
and producers in other areas of the country and serve as a model for
similar initiatives in other areas of the country.

Other USDA agencies involved in the Department’s Water Quality Initia-
tive include ASCS,which will provide cost-sharing funds for some
projects, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which will
utilize nonchemical pest control methods. The Forest Service will have a
minor research role. USDA will continue ongoing work related to water
quality, such as integrated pest management and LISA research, although
these efforts are not included in the initiative.




Page 43                            GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                                                                                                                   Y




PI=

k&?;kqg for USDA’s Water QuaJity Efforts                                                                       ”


               The nine agencies with water quality funding in fiscal year 1990
               account for more than two-thirds of the Department’s total staffing.’
               Most of the staff of these nine agencies are employed by the Forest Ser-
               vice, which has a small role in the Department’s water quality activities.
               USDA could not, however, estimate how much staff time is devoted to
               water quality activities because of the multiple goals of its programs.

               To get some perspective about staff assigned to water quality programs
               or activities, we asked the nine agencies with designated water quality
               spending to estimate the number of their staff working on water quality
               programs. Although all these agencies provided us with estimates of
               their water quality staffing levels, they used different methods to derive
               their estimates; therefore, the numbers cannot be accurately added
               together or compared with each other. These estimates, and the Depart-
               ment’s total staffing levels, are shown in table 111.1.




               ‘Of the 10 agencies participating in USDA’s Water Quality Initiative in fiscal year 1990,Q are to
               receive funding.



               Page 44                                 GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
           Y

       .




                                            bwJ*          n.I
                                            st.afnng for USM’r water Quality Rfforta




Table 111.1:Staffing of USDA Agonclor
Wlth Water Ouallty Ellorts, Eatlmrtod for                                                                    Total Water quality               Methods
Fbcal Year 1989                             Agency                                                    staff years daft estimate                  used’
                                            Agricultural Research Service                                    8,200                  170                3s
                                            Cooperative State Research Service                                 167                        b              2
                                            Extension Service                                                  171                  163c                 1
                                            National Agricultural Library                                      202                    1                  4

                                            Ag;tr;lttrl     Stabilization and Conservation                   3,295               1,649                   4
                                            Forest Service                                                  40,913                 237                 12
                                            Soil Conservation Service                                       13.954                 3436                  5
                                            Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service                       5,633                 227                   3
                                            Economic Research Service                                          792                   7                 25
                                            lo~;ta~;gencies        with water quality
                                                                                                           73,327                         *              .
                                            Total USDA                                                    109.567                         .              .

                                            ‘The following methods were used: (1) dividing the agency’s water quality funding by the estimated
                                            cost of supporting a staff member; (2) dividing the agency’s water quality funding by the estimated cost
                                            of supporting a scientist and related support staff; (3) assuming that the percentage of the agency’s
                                            staff working on water quality would be proportional to the percentage of its total budget devoted to
                                            water quality; (4) estimating staffing levels for conservation efforts, including water quality; and (5) esti-
                                            mating the agency’s water quality staff on a project-by-project basis and factoring in headquarters and
                                            administrative support.
                                            bThe latest staffing data available for the Cooperative State Research Service were for fiscal year 1987.
                                            ‘The Extension Service estimate refers to all staff funded through its budget, including state and local
                                            staff who are partially funded using federal money.
                                            dOnly SCS was able to provide an actual count of all of its staff working on water quality issues.


                                            Sources: USDA Fiscal Year 1991 Budget Summary and agency officials.




                        Y




                                            Page 46                                    GAO/RCED=BO-162USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Appendix IV

USDA’s Low-Input Sustainable
Agriculture Program

                        Concerns about the environment and farmers’ dependence on machine
                        and chemical inputs led the Congress to include a program to research
                        and disseminate information on alternative farming practices in the
                        Food Security Act of 1985. Following the first appropriation for such a
                        program in fiscal year 1988, USDA issued a policy statement supporting
                        such alternative agricultural programs. USDA'S Low-Input Sustainable
                        Agriculture (LISA) program began operation in fiscal year 1988, offering
                        grants for research and education on alternative agricultural practices.

                        LISA  offers research and education grants to develop and encourage the
                        use of farming practices that substitute management skills for the use of
                        some purchased inputs such as agricultural chemicals. Through fiscal
                        year 1989, the program had funded 80 projects on a wide range of
                        topics. USDA did not request funding for the LISA program for fiscal years
                         1989 or 1990. Further, the LISA program is not included in the Depart-
                        ment’s Water Quality Initiative, even though the program shares the ini-
                        tiative’s focus on agricultural chemical management.


LISA Program Offers     There is no commonly accepted definition of sustainable, or alternative,
Researchand Education   agriculture, but there is some agreement that in order for a farming
                        practice to be sustainable in the long run, as well as the short term, it
Grants                  needs to balance a number of sometimes competing needs, including (1)
                        consumer and farmer health, (2) natural resource conservation, (3)
                        farmer profitability, (4) environmental protection, and (5) demand for
                        agricultural products.

                        Low-input generally refers to farming systems that rely less on pur-
                        chased products, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and more on
                        resources such as labor, scientific information, and improved manage-
                        ment. The LISA concept is not the same as organic farming, however.
                        Although farming without the use of any manufactured chemicals can
                        be part of a LISA system, the prudent use of chemicals is also consistent
                        with the goals of LISA. In contrast, conventional agriculture utilizes sys-
                        tems that achieve high yields through specialization and the increased
                        use of purchased products such as fertilizers and pesticides.

                        The LISA program is administered on three levels. Policy development
                        and program coordination are the responsibility of the USDA Research
                        and Education Committee, Subcommittee on Alternative Farming Sys-
                        tems, which is made up of representatives from 14 USDA agencies and
                        offices. The Cooperative State Research Service has organized and



                        Page 46                      GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                                       Appendix IV
                                       USDA’s Low-Input Sustainable
                                       Agriculture Program




                                       directed the national program, with the participation of other IJSDA agen-
                                       cies, notably the Extension Service, which provides educational assis-
                                       tance, and the National Agricultural Library, which operates the
                                       Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. Grant selection and
                                       administration in each of four regions is the responsibility of a host
                                       institution in that region. Table IV.1 lists the regions and their host insti-
                                       tutions. Grant proposals are reviewed by regional technical committees
                                       and approved by administrative councils made up of representatives
                                       from research, extension, and private sector organizations in each
                                       region.

Table IV.l: LISA Program Regions and
Host institutions                      Region                          Host institution                  States
                                       --.----
                                       Northeast                       University of Vermont             Conn., Del., Me., Md., Mass.,
                                                                                                         N.H., N.J., N.Y., Pa., RI., Vt.,
                                                                               _______--.                W.Va.
                                       North Central                   University of Nebraska            ill., Ind., la., KS., Mich., Minn.,
                                                                                                         MO., Nebr., N.Dak., Oh., S.Dak.,
                                       -- -----_-      _--._-_.----.        __--       __.~-      ~-~.   Wise. ~-~~.-~.         ~~     ~-.
                                       Southern                        Unwersity of Georgia              Ala., Ark., Fla., Ga., Ky., La.,
                                                                                                         Miss., N.Car., Okla S.Car.,
                                                    --. _____...~.                                       Tenn., Tex., Va., P.RIco, V.I.
                                       Western                         University of California          Ariz., Cal., Cot, Hi., Ida., Mont,,
                                                                                                         N.Mex., Nev., Ore., Ut., Wash ,
                                                                                                         Wyo., U.S. Protectorates
                                                                                                         (American Samoa, Guam,
                                                                                                         Micronesia, Marianasl




LISA Funding Has Been                  Although IJSDA policy officially encourages research and education pro-
                                       grams on alternative farming practices, the LISA program has received
Modest                                 modest funding and support. After an initial appropriation of $3.9 mil-
                                       lion for fiscal year 1988, USDA'S next two budgets proposed the elimina-
                                       tion of funding for the LISA program. Instead, the Congress increased its
                                       appropriation for the program to $4.45 million for both fiscal years
                                        1989 and 1990. In its fiscal year 1991 budget, the Department requested
                                       that LISA funding be continued at current levels.

                                       The $8.36 million appropriated for the first 2 years of the program ($3.9
                                       million in fiscal year 1988 and $4.45 million in fiscal year 1989) sup-
                                       ported a total of 80 projects, ranging in size from $2,000 to $255,000.
                                       Figure IV. 1 shows the number of approved projects by region and year.
                                       In fiscal years 1988 and 1989, a total of 802 proposals were received by
                                       the 4 host institutions, of which 221 were judged by the review commit-
                                       tees to be acceptable in terms of relevance, methodology, and plans for



                                       Page 47                                    GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                                                                                                                                                .,
                                          Appendix IV
                                          USDA’s Low-Input Sustainable
                                          Agriculture Program




                                          making the findings readily usable to farmers. In both years, more pro-
                                          posals were judged acceptable than could be supported with existing
                                          allocations: in fiscal year 1988,61 percent of the proposals judged
                                          acceptable were not funded; in fiscal year 1989,38 percent of the pro-
                                          posals judged acceptable were not funded. Additional money would
                                          have made it possible to fund these projects and to increase the number
                                          of years of support provided to long-term projects.



Figure IV.1: Approved USDA LISA ProJect8 by Region, Fiscal Years 1999 and 1909
24   Numbw of PraJocb




Ryllon, Fiacal Year

     I        Renewed Projects
              Newly Funded Projects

                                          Note: Four of the 53 projects approved in fiscal year 1988 were later merged with similar projects,
                                          leaving a total of 49 for the year.


                                          Each region was allocated an equal portion of the available grant funds
                                          and each distributed the funds on the basis of regional and national pri-
                                          orities. Each received $836,000 in fiscal year 1988 and $976,000 in
                                          fiscal year 1989.




                                          Page 48                                   GAO/RCED-20-102 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
                             AppendixN
                             USM’r Luw-Jnput Swtalnable
                             Agriculture Program




                             The LISA projects that have been funded to date are designed to meet
                             both long-term and immediate needs. Most of the funded projects are
                             long-term studies requiring several years to produce valid results, e.g.,
                             the development of alternative cropping systems. Other grants were
                             awarded to make current information more accessible to farmers. For
                             example, some of these short-term, l-year grants have funded the pro-
                             duction of video tapes demonstrating alternative farming practices. USDA
                             had not yet evaluated the progress or results of any of these projects at
                             the time of our review.

                             Because regions were permitted to fund projects to meet their own goals,
                             the subjects addressed by these projects vary. The grants awarded in
                             each region include projects that address major crop and livestock sys-
                             tems of that region: (1) dairy, fruit, and vegetables in the Northeast; (2)
                             grain, cattle, and swine in the North Central region; (3) fruits, grain, and
                             poultry in the South; and (4) grain, vegetables, and cattle in the West.

                             In addition, each region funded projects to meet national goals of evalu-
                             ating the general productivity and profitability of low-input systems, as
                             well as educational projects to make information more accessible.


Complete Information on      Although some information on LISA results is available, the program has
Program Results Is Not Yet   not yet produced enough information to convince a significant number
                             of farmers to adopt low-input practices. According to USDA field staff,
Available                    the widespread introduction of low-input methods will take time
                             because Extension Service agents are reluctant to advise farmers to use
                             such practices without sound economic and scientific backing. Farm
                             organization officials also stated that enough evidence does not yet exist
                             to convince most farmers to change their current methods.




                             Page 49                      GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA’s Water Quality Responsibilities
Appendix V

Major Contributors to This Report


                        Edward M. Zadjura, Assistant Director
Resources,              Daniel M. Haas, Assignment Manager
Community, and          Robert E. Seelinger, Evaluator-in-Charge
                        James R. Sweetman, Jr., Staff Evaluator
Economic                Silvette E. Sierra, Staff Evaluator
Development Division,
Washington, D.C.

                        Christopher L. Turner, Site Senior
Chicago Regional        Susan E. Swearingen, Staff Evaluator
Office




                        Page 60                      GAO/RCED-90-162 USDA's Water Quality Responsibilities
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