USDA Needs to Better Focus Its Water Quality Responsibilities

RCED-90-162: Published: Jul 23, 1990. Publicly Released: Aug 31, 1990.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) management and coordination of water quality activities.

GAO found that: (1) USDA developed a water quality initiative for fiscal year 1990 to expand its ongoing water quality programs and establish new programs; (2) 10 USDA agencies are involved in water quality activities and plan to spend $155 million this year; (3) USDA expects the initiative to be more comprehensive and better coordinated than its previous water quality activities; (4) groundwater contamination is a critical issue, since groundwater is the major source of water for many Americans; (5) the agricultural sector is the largest user of pesticides and fertilizers, and these chemicals are increasingly being found in surface water and groundwater supplies; (6) the public increasingly perceives that farm chemicals found in groundwater threaten human health and that limiting their use is warranted; (7) the USDA Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture Program (LISA) offers research grants to promote agricultural production methods that reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and protect the environment; and (8) USDA has not developed a comprehensive departmental policy on water quality.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The 1990 farm bill requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish an Office of Environmental Quality with a full-time director and full-time staff.

    Recommendation: To improve the management and coordination of USDA water quality activities, the Secretary of Agriculture should clearly establish responsibility and accountability for USDA 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 USDA water quality activities and assessing those activities in light of department-wide objectives. The focal point should also coordinate USDA water quality activities with related departmental activities, such as LISA, 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 USDA 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 also want to consider the merits of establishing state or regional specialists to coordinate local water quality activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 1990, USDA announced a single, comprehensive policy on water quality.

    Recommendation: To avoid the confusion and contradictions created by overlapping policies, the Secretary of Agriculture should 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 current USDA 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA is engaged in carrying out research on this issue. Economic and technical research is assessing how commodity programs and incentives may lead to input substitution, modify chemical use, and affect chemical leaching into groundwater.

    Recommendation: Because USDA water quality efforts could be adversely affected by some USDA activities, the Secretary of Agriculture should build on recent efforts to determine how USDA commodity, soil conservation, and other activities affect its efforts to protect water quality. Such a task should determine the types of information that farmers use when making production decisions and identify appropriate penalties and incentives to ensure that water quality activities serve both national conservation and private property interests. Such a study could be carried out by the focal point GAO recommended.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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