Last fall, a wave of toxic algae overwhelmed the Ohio River, sending boaters and swimmers back to shore and putting water utilities on alert. The culprit? Chemicals called phosphates and nitrates, flushed into the river from fertilized farm fields, leaky sewers and industrial sources that fueled the algae growth. Hotter than average temperatures and heavier rainfalls — attributable to climate change — also played a part.

Developing a solution

In the Ohio River basin, the Electric Power Research Institute is working with various partners to establish the nation's first interstate water quality trading market. The market allows industries to purchase water quality "credits" from farmers in the watershed. In turn, farmers use the funds to pay for conservation practices that reduce the amount of fertilizer running off their farms.

In the pilot program’s first two years, farms in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana made improvements that kept an estimated 98,314 pounds of nitrogen and 28,699 pounds of phosphorus out of the Ohio River, which flows into the Mississippi and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. In 2015, the U.S. Water Alliance awarded the project the U.S. Water Prize.

“By expanding the use of farm conservation practices ... our nation’s farmers are better able to promote cleaner water and a healthier environment.”

Farms are crucial

Although farms are by no means the only contributors to water pollution, their fate is inextricably linked to the quality of the water around them. Agriculture accounts for approximately 70 percent of the water used in the world today. How farmers manage that water is of importance to us all.

By expanding the use of farm conservation practices, such as cover crops, filter strips and no-till farming that better manage nitrogen and phosphorus, our nation’s farmers are better able to promote cleaner water and a healthier environment. Here are some pillars of success indicating how effectively farmers and ranchers around the country are working to protect water quality and save the land:

Farmers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia have kept a quarter of a million pounds of nitrogen, as well as phosphorus and sediment, from entering the bay. And while Pacific Northwest salmon populations are threatened by many factors – from dam building and pollution to climate change — conservation tactics are allowing farms to help protect that salmon habitat.

Another example lies down the coast. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of California’s water supply. Environmentally friendly practices, such as drip irrigation and recycling of water run-off, conserve water and improve farm sustainability. Meanwhile, in Illinois’ Upper Salt Fork watershed, corn and soybean farmers worked to reduce nutrient runoff and demonstrate how farmers can make significant contributions to clean water.

Finally, look to Long Island in New York. Farming is a major part of the economy and environment on Long Island’s East End, where a number of sweet corn growers and other farmers have toiled to reduce their use of fertilizers and adopt practices to protect groundwater and minimize pollution.