Trouble Downstream: Upgrading Conservation Compliance

October 2007

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1.                           1. Due to lax standards and implementation problems, the conservation compliance program is missing cost-effective opportunities to make further, substantial reductions in soil erosion on U.S. cropland.

2.                           2. Without corrections to policy design constraints and adequate staff funding to effectively implement the program, conservation compliance will not reduce soil erosion on the majority of U.S. cropland to rates considered “sustainable.”

3.                           3. Since geographic areas heavily associated with crop subsidies are linked with high levels of agricultural nutrient pollution, current conservation compliance policy misses an opportunity to prevent or reduce pollution that may be subsidized by farm programs.

4.                           4. Conservation compliance is a valid eligibility requirement for farmers receiving commodity subsidies since the current voluntary, financial assistance approach to solving agricultural environmental problems leaves 75 percent of farmer applications unfunded.

5. Conservation compliance should be expanded and strengthened to help reduce the additional soil erosion and nutrient pollution associated with the increase in agricultural biofuels production.


In the 1985 Farm Bill, Congress decided that as a quid pro quo for federal farm assistance, farmers receiving taxpayer support should control soil erosion on highly erodible lands used to grow subsidized crops. The policy principle was straightforward and widely embraced in conservation and agriculture policy circles: taxpayer support for agriculture should not inadvertently subsidize degradation of natural resources or the environment. Parallel policies were authorized in the 1985 law to prevent subsidies from encouraging conversion of fragile lands and wetlands to crop production.

In order to maintain their eligibility for federal farm benefits such as commodity crop subsidies and disaster payments, farmers were required to develop and implement a government-approved soil conservation plan specifying soil conservation practices. Common erosion reduction practices include: rotating crops, minimizing tillage, leaving soil covered with crop residue after harvest, and installing grassed buffers, etc. This program was called the Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) Compliance provision or “conservation compliance,” for short.

Farmers were given 10 years (until 1995) to fully implement the soil conservation plans. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) attributes the HELC planning and compliance process with widespread adoption of conservation systems, which made unprecedented progress in reducing erosion over these 10 years (Claassen et al, 2004). HELC compliance, coupled with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), reduced erosion by about 40 percent (1.2 billion tons) from 3.07 billion tons in 1982 to 1.9 billion tons in 1997 (national soil survey years which encompass the 1985 to 1995 time period). USDA attributes about 25 percent of that reduction to HELC compliance requirements. HELC compliance is also credited with a “technology-forcing” effect that helped reduce erosion on cropland not subject to HELC plans.

However, since full implementation of HELC compliance plans in 1995, there has been little additional progress in reducing erosion. According to the National Resources Inventory (NRI) survey, approximately 100 million acres of cropland in the U.S.—nearly one-third of the 368 million acres of cropland nationwide —continue to erode at rates deemed “unsustainable.” As of 2003, when the latest NRI survey occurred, 1.76 billion tons of soil is still being lost each year. Sediment from cropland causes a variety of serious problems as it pollutes drinking water sources, clogs downstream reservoirs that include hydroelectric facilities, smothers aquatic life, and forces farmers to use more fertilizer to make up for reduced soil fertility. Moreover, since 1985, mounting scientific evidence has identified fertilizer run-off and animal manure from cropland as a major source of water nutrient pollution (Howarth et al, 2002). Nutrient run-off was not a consideration in the development or implementation of HELC policy or plans.

Another, even more dramatic development since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill and the HELC policy is the ethanol boom. While experts are still trying to determine what the net impact of expanding corn acreage and production will be on natural resources and the environment, it is clear that ethanol production is already leading to significant changes in cropping patterns, and to growing demand for corn. Both of which could have adverse impacts on water quality and soil erosion, increased fertilizer and pesticide application, and land use change. Current HELC policy and soil conservation plans may be inadequate to deal with potential emerging environmental impacts of the ethanol boom.

This report highlights the successes and shortcomings of the conservation compliance policy and sheds light on the nationwide problem of agricultural soil erosion and nutrient pollution. To provide a state-level perspective and to highlight one of the nation’s largest agricultural-environmental problems—the Mississippi River-Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone”—this report focuses on the 10 states that border the Mississippi River: Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

The Mississippi River Basin (MRB) watershed includes 17 major tributaries that drain 31 states and 41 percent of the continental United States (U.S. Department of Interior). The Mississippi River also encompasses the majority of the country’s subsidized production of corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice, and much of the nation’s beef, dairy, hog, and poultry industries. According to the USDA, cropland in the Mississippi River Basin not only receives the highest federal commodity subsidies but also has the highest nitrogen runoff potential.