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CARD: Center for Agricultural and Rural Development

Winter 2003, Vol. 9 No. 1

pdf for printing Water Quality Research: A Collaborative Effort

Bruce A. Babcock

Who could be against clean water? After all, we rely on clean water for our households, farms, industries, and for recreation. But whenever groups push for cleaner water, there is an inevitable outcry about the costs. And, too often it seems, the outcry is from farming interests. This should come as no surprise because in many areas runoff from crop and livestock farms is the largest contributor to water pollution.
CARD researchers are continuing their efforts to estimate the costs and benefits of reducing agriculture's contribution to water pollution. There are two main thrusts to this effort. The first is to gain a better understanding of how site-specific management practices, and site-specific physical properties (such as type of soil, slope of land, and proximity to waterways), interact with weather events to determine the amounts of nutrients and sediments delivered to waterways. This effort requires the collaboration of agronomists, soil scientists, hydrologists, biological engineers, statisticians, and computer programmers to collect the data and construct the models needed to understand water quality in a given watershed. A recent analysis of the Upper Maquoketa River watershed is an example of such collaboration, as illustrated by the accompanying map. The results showed that relatively few combinations of production practices and physical properties generated a significant portion of pollution in the watershed.
The second thrust of CARD's research effort is for economists to translate the physical reality of water pollution into estimates of the cost and benefits of cleaner water. Late last year, an annual survey was initiated to assess how Iowans use and value water. This four-year effort is supported by research funds from the National Science Foundation, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The results should give us better estimates of the benefits of cleaner water.
Past economic research has shown that clean-up costs increase as water becomes cleaner (it costs much more to clean pristine water than to clean dirty water). Costs also increase when inefficient regulations are used. For example, if 90 percent of runoff comes from 10 percent of land, then regulations that require 100 percent participation in clean water practices can be quite costly. Flexible regulations that result in 10 percent participation (if it is the right 10 percent) would be much more cost effective. CARD research is meant to help design and implement low-cost clean water programs and to help determine the level of cleanliness at which benefits are not exceeded by costs.