The policies and strategies that have evolved from the more than 40 year old Clean Water Act (CWA) are now unable to deal with the realities of today’s complex and overburdened watersheds. Toxic algae blooms and dead zones in our lakes and coastal waters, contaminated wells and aquifers, poor water quality in the majority of our rivers and streams…all are symptoms of an outdated and failing strategy.
Our current path is not sustainable
The CWA has been effective at controlling pollution from ‘point sources’, such as industrial, municipal wastewater treatment and power plants, where pollution is easily measured and regulated. The vast majority of the nation’s clean water spending, over $114 billion in 2010, is directed at point sources; most of that spending is driven by nutrient removal. However, further nutrient reductions from point sources will require steeply escalating costs for incremental improvements. Stormwater treatment, the next step in regulation under the CWA, represents substantially higher costs.
Agriculture is the problem…and the solution
The largest source of nutrients in most major watersheds comes from ‘non-point’ sources, which are diffuse and not easily measured or regulated. Agriculture is a non-point source and much of the excess nutrients from agriculture come from livestock and the storage and land-application of untreated manure for fertilizer. However, agriculture and livestock are all but excluded from compliance mandates under the CWA.
Best management practices (BMPs), the voluntary and often taxpayer-funded farming practices that have been the primary source of agricultural reductions, are now known to be less than half as effective as previously thought. More importantly, BMPs do nothing to reduce the ammonia emissions from livestock waste; these ammonia emissions have recently been demonstrated to be responsible for fully half of the nitrogen impacts from livestock production. Failure to adequately address agriculture, and especially livestock, has led to much of the excess nutrient problem we have today.
Agricultural ammonia emissions disrupt earth’s delicate nitrogen balance is a landmark study conducted by Colorado State University, along with the US EPA, National Park Service and the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, that was released in May 2016. The peer-reviewed study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed what Bion has said for many years: ammonia emissions from livestock waste results in very large quantities of highly-reactive and mobile nitrogen that reenters the watershed and surrounding areas through atmospheric deposition.
The nitrogen from ammonia emissions deposits everywhere: forests and fields, roads and waterways, parking lots and rooftops. According to the study, ammonia emissions from livestock waste and nitrogen fertilizers have surpassed nitrates (NOx) from fossil fuel emissions “as the dominant source of disruption to the nitrogen cycle”. Among the report’s conclusions: “future progress toward reducing U.S. nitrogen deposition will be increasingly difficult without a reduction in ammonia emissions”.
Direct treatment of livestock waste represents a large untapped pool of low-cost nutrient reductions
Advances in technology, such as Bion’s, are creating new alternatives that make it possible to achieve large-scale, cost-effective and verifiable nutrient reductions, including ammonia, from non-point source livestock operations. It is substantially less expensive to capture nutrients at their livestock source than after they have escaped to contaminate the environment through atmospheric deposition or direct runoff and have to be recaptured. The livestock industry has begun to recognize its potential to provide large-scale solutions to the problems of excess nutrients. In May 2015 at the PA Senate Majority Policy Committee hearing, representatives from the dairy, beef and egg industries gave testimony in support of a market-driven strategy that would engage the industry and allow it to provide large-scale low-cost solutions.
Recent federal policy guidance from EPA, USDA and Office of Management and Budget, supports a market-based approach to water quality management and highlights the need for a transparent and accountable process that shifts risk from the public. A 2015 University of Maryland (UMD) Financing Strategy Report and a 2013 Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) study both demonstrate that a competitive procurement program, open to all sources of verified reductions, will save billions of dollars and accelerate cleanup of our watersheds. A verified credit standard was established in 2013/2014, creating a ‘common currency’ that can serve as the foundation of a transparent and accountable trading/ procurement program to capture the dramatic savings demonstrated in the Maryland and Pennsylvania studies.
In June 2016, H.R. 5489, the Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Act, was introduced in the House Ways and Means Committee – Science, Space and Technology. If adopted, the Act will allow biogas property and qualified manure resource recovery property to be eligible for the energy credit (30% Investment Tax Credit – ITC) and to permit new clean renewable energy bonds to finance qualified biogas property, finding federal “incentives and encouragement for the conservation and appropriate handling of nutrients contained in organic matter are necessary”.
Innovation requires investment – investment requires certainty and accountability that has been lacking in a space traditionally dominated by government agencies and NGOs
Bion is a founding member of the Coalition for Affordable Bay Solutions (CABS) that, along with major national and state livestock interests, supports a market-driven strategy that will allow more cost-effective solutions to compete for current public spending. The 2013 bipartisan LBFC study said a competitive bidding program could reduce costs to Pennsylvania’s rate- and tax-payers by up to $1.5 billion annually, an 80 percent savings. A Special Report issued by Pennsylvania’s Auditor General highlighted the Commonwealth’s impending default on its 2017 Bay targets, the dire economic consequences of that default, and the need to address low cost alternatives, including manure control technologies.
In October 2016, legislation to implement a competitive bidding strategy in order to capture the savings opportunities spelled out in the LBFC study was introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate. The bill is sponsored by Republican leadership; Bion anticipates the bill will be considered when the Legislature resumes in January 2017. A separate competitive bidding bill was introduced also in the House.
While the answer seems straightforward – reallocate some portion of our existing spending to these more cost-effective solutions – change has been a complex and slow process, involving many layers of federal, state and local agencies and policies. The clean water space is dominated by government agencies and NGOs, many that have a strong cultural bias against private sector solutions. But the biggest problem has been the many vested (and deeply invested) stakeholders, including many of the NGOs, that benefit from the status quo; they strongly oppose change that might reduce ‘their’ share of funding, despite clear evidence of better and cheaper solutions.
The inevitable reallocation of current spending to more effective and cost-effective solutions will unlock dramatic savings to the taxpayer, who ultimately bears the cost for clean water. Bion believes we need to use ALL the tools in the toolbox: engaging the private sector is a common sense solution whose time has come. Finalizing and funding a competitive procurement strategy that is transparent, accountable and based on cost (as most goods and services are acquired on behalf of the taxpayer) will benefit both the environment and the taxpayer, and will highlight those solutions that can document both their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.
Strategies being developed in the Chesapeake Bay can serve as a blueprint for the more than 30 states in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins, and other watersheds that suffer from the same problem and face the same looming costs. The UMD Financing Strategy Report summed it up, “it is essential that financing and funding decisions be made based on efficiency and effectiveness of projects rather than political outcomes and motivations”.
The farming community has long awaited this important opportunity, which allows the financing and installation of new technologies to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into our Nation’s watersheds. The proposed legislation to implement a competitive bidding process for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is cutting-edge public policy and will lead to improved water management with lower costs to the citizens.
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Governor of North Dakota
Bion Executive Vice Chairman
US EPA calls excess nutrients the greatest water quality problem in the U.S. today. Dead Zones, toxic algal blooms, and contaminated wells and aquifers occur throughout the U.S. and the world with more frequency and scale… read more
Bion has developed and proven its technology platform that provides comprehensive environmental treatment of livestock waste and recovers valuable nutrients, energy and clean water from the waste stream… read more
Local and Downstream Benefits
Treating livestock waste at its source creates dramatic savings in downstream compliance costs and produces local economic and environmental benefits that cannot be achieved through downstream treatment options… read more
New Clean Water Strategy
Escalating clean water costs and declining overall water quality indicate current policies must change. A new strategy based on transparency, accountability and cost-effectiveness has to be implemented… read more