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Farmers deal with our natural resources on a daily basis: the land, the air, the water. This puts them in a unique position to either protect those resources, or exploit them. Explore more about the complex factors affecting the relationship between agriculture and water quality.

Pressure to Produce
Without farmers, where would we be? No milk, eggs, meat, produce, grain, or hundreds of other goods that rely on farmers’ productivity. But is there too much pressure to produce? Are farmers forced to take risks and shortcuts that jeopardize the environment, in order to meet our needs and make themselves a profit? Farmers must constantly weigh their desire to be good stewards of the land against a complex set of economic factors. And farmers aren’t the only ones faced with that struggle, industries and businesses must make the same sorts of decisions. Choosing the best practices for water, may cost more money or take more time.

In the city or down on the farm, protecting water really does come down to individual choices. On the farm, the choices range from the way manure is managed, to the amounts and types of chemicals used. From the way farmers till their land, to the way they manage their livestock. The consequences of all these choices are closely tied to water quality.

Regulation and Beyond
So how do we encourage farmers to make the right choices? Regulation can be a powerful tool, it worked very well to stop industries that were polluting water. But enforcing regulations on hundreds of thousands of farms would be costly, and almost impossible to enforce. Education is another tool. Universities spend a lot of time, effort, and money researching the most effective, economical, and environmentally friendly management practices for farmers. These Best Management Practices (BMPs) are ultimately tested by individual farmers, and hopefully put into widespread use. Can you think of other things that would encourage farmers to protect water quality?

Livestock Management
Who controls how land resources are managed? Does a farmer have a responsibility to others?

What do livestock have to do with water quality? A lot, if they’re not managed correctly. Large groups of animals that are allowed free access to waterways can impair the water in more ways than one.

  • Livestock can trample streambanks and eat all the vegetation, exposing bare soil. Wind and water quickly erode soil away, increasing the amount of sediment moving into waterways.
  • Animals that are allowed to eliminate into the water impair the water with their waste. Animal waste contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous and can contain disease causing bacteria, or harmful amounts of antibiotics.
  • Even if livestock aren’t eliminating directly into waterways, it’s extremely important to manage the manure they produce. If the manure isn’t carefully controlled and disposed of, runoff can carry the nutrients or bacteria into waterways.

What does this mean to you?

  • If manure isn't managed properly, you pay more to treat water before you can use it.
  • High levels of nitrogen in drinking water can affect the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, causing serious health problem, especially for babies.
  • Disease-causing bacteria present in animal waste, (e.g., E. coli), pose a serious health threat to humans. Runoff containing livestock waste contributes to closing several lakes and beaches in Iowa every year.

All animals need water, and as long as we are buying animal products for food and clothing, farmers will raise them. What are some things farmers can do to manage livestock with water quality in mind? What are the Best Management Practices of livestock management?

  • Farmers can fence off streams and provide alternative water sources for livestock.
  • Animal waste can be collected, properly stored, and then applied to fields rather than left to runoff into the water supply.

What do you think?
If farmers prefer to let their livestock run free on their land, who has the right to stop them? Should farmers be able to protect their herds from disease using antibiotics?

Iowa State Extension Services. "The Water Quality Connection." (Agronomy Extension Programs.) Online. http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/waterquality/. March 2002.



Explore More: Water Quality
Copyright 2004, Iowa Public Television
The Explore More project is supported by funds from the
Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust
and the USDE Star Schools Program.




Emerging Contaminants
A rather recent development, emerging contaminants, is just beginning to be studied. Emerging contaminants are new chemicals only recently found in our water supply.

Hypoxia and the Dead Zone
The Doyle family farms along the Mississippi River in Iowa. Their corn and soybean crops grow in rich river soil, created by centuries of sediment deposited by glaciers and the Mississippi's flood cycles.

What is a CAFO?
Given the enormous potential for manure to impair water quality, should large animal confinements be allowed to operate?

Manure Management
is a nice way of talking about one of the dirty jobs of raising livestock–getting rid of animal waste. What do farmers do with it?

Iowa’s Hog Lots
A hog lot controversy has been brewing for years in Iowa. Hogs create an incredible amount of income in the state, but they also bring the potential for tremendous environmental damage.

Should land that is naturally too dry for crops be irrigated? What are the benefits and drawbacks?

IPTV Market to Market Online Links

"Weather Alters Market Prospects." This Market to Market feature looks at how weather patterns influence agriculture.

"Inland Fishing Makes Waves." This Market to Market feature looks at some Iowa farmers turning to aquaculture.

"Markets Responds to Planting Delays and Drought." This Market to Market feature looks at drought and how it has affected farmers' ability to plant crops.

"Water Issues Trouble Rural America." This Market to Market feature looks at water interests of farming and rural areas. Read about flooding, drought, hydrologic modification, and more.

"Riverkeepers Target Big Pork." This Market to Market feature looks at how rivers are affected by hog lots.

"Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance." These Market to Market features look at nitrates in our water and what we can do about them. Feature 1
Feature 2

PBS NewsHour Online Links

Lee Hochberg reports on a debate over water rights in Oregon that pits endangered suckerfish against endangered farmers.

Mark Twain put it best: "In the West whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting." This particular fight is over the water in two rivers: the Animus and the La Plata, a fight nearly a century old.