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Innovative options for addressing nonpoint-source pollution

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Clean Water Act (CWA) nationalized the regulation of water quality, establishing the legal framework governing water pollution control in the United States. Since passage of the CWA in 1972, the United States has realized significant water quality improvements by reducing end-of-pipe emissions to surface waters. However, vexing water quality challenges still exist due to the management of land. The eutrophication of Chesapeake Bay and expanding hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River are prime examples of environmental problems driven largely by pollution coming from urban and agricultural land uses. 

Contaminants—notably nutrients and sediment—from nonpoint sources remain largely exempt from federal and state regulation. Voluntary programs offering incentives and assistance to curb pollution from nonpoint sources have been no match for the scope of the problem. The U.S. Congress seems unlikely to enact new regulations for nonpoint sources or to increase incentives for abatement. 

Meanwhile, market pressures continue to grow to produce more food, fiber and biofuels, and to accommodate urban growth. The U.S. population is projected to grow more than 50% in the first half of the 21st Century. Progress in containing the environmental effects of even more intensive land uses will depend on innovative new programs and strategies, many originating at state, tribal and local levels, in other countries, or even within private supply chains. 

In the current issue of Choices magazine, academicians, economists, researchers, environmentalists, engineers and policy experts examine innovative options for addressing nonpoint-source pollution.

  • Lara Fowler of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, Jamison Colburn of the Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center, and Matthew Royer of the Penn State Dickinson School of Law, examine how regulations enabled under the CWA can be adapted to address basin-wide objectives for water quality that allow flexibility and state leadership in addressing individual dischargers. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has initiated rulemaking to reduce storm water discharges from the built environment.
  • State-level initiatives surrounding nutrient pollution and, in particular, Florida’s successful regulatory efforts to reduce nonpoint sources affecting the Everglades, are reviewed by Cathy Kling of Iowa State University.
  • Lisa Wainger of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, and James Shortle of Penn State University, report that a regulatory innovation—shifting from discharge limits to group caps on loadings to a river basin—has enabled significant trading and cost-saving between point sources, but few successes involving nonpoint sources. They view administered trading and pay-for-performance systems as the most promising approaches to controlling nonpoint source pollution.
  • The application and contributions of a new-generation of integrated analytical tools to support policy innovations are discussed by Sylvia Secchi of Southern Illinois University.
  • Amy Ando of the University of Illinois, and Noelwah Netusil of Reed College, report on new approaches to urban stormwater management emphasizing decentralized green infrastructure.
  • Product bans, land acquisition and financial incentives being used by states and local governments to reduce pollution to coastal waters are the subject of a paper by Sara Aminzadah and Sean Bothwell, both of the California Coastkeeper Alliance; Linwood Pendleton and Amy Pickle, both of Duke University; and Alexandria B. Boehm of Stanford University.
  • Environmental conditionality within Europe’s agricultural policy framework is reviewed by Jussi Lankoski of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Markku Ollikainen of the University of Helsinki. They also examine required actions under the European Community’s environmental directives, and Europe’s mixed experience with financial incentives to manage nutrients. 

Together, these papers on nonpoint-source pollution policy provide decision makers and land owners with insights and options to reduce nonpoint sources of water pollution. While the challenge is great, the experimentation described in these papers is encouraging. 

This post was authored by John B. Braden ( Professor Emeritus, Department of Agricultural & Consumer Economics, University of Illinois, and Kevin J. Boyle (, Professor and Director, Program in Real Estate, Virginia Tech. Boyle also chairs the Council on Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics’  Blue Ribbon Panel on Natural Resources and Environmental Issues.

1 comment on “Innovative options for addressing nonpoint-source pollution”

  1. Tim Gieseke
    Posted Wednesday, November 06, 2013 at 11:47:44 AM

    These are all good efforts, but they are in need of a common platform.

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.