Statement of Thomas A. Weber
Associate Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service
United States Department of Agriculture
Before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee
October 8, 2002
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I am pleased to appear before you today to present the Department of Agriculture’s perspective on the Clean Water Act and the celebration of the 30th Anniversary of this historic Act. I thank the Members of the Committee for the opportunity to appear, and I would like to express gratitude to the Chairman and members of this body for your interest in USDA’s roles in improving water quality.
The 30th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act is cause for celebration about the improvements that have been made in the quality of our Nation’s waters. At USDA, we are celebrating this event along with our many partners at the Federal, State, Tribal, and local levels – including our non-governmental partners, farmers, ranchers, and woodlot owners. And as we celebrate the past 30 years, we are also reflecting on USDA’s natural resource conservation heritage, and upon the significant work ahead of us as we enter this new century.
A Historical Perspective –
The People’s Department, as Abraham Lincoln referred to USDA, has played a key role in the management of nonpoint sources of pollution for nearly a century, long before the word nonpoint was part of our vocabulary. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt named Gifford Pinchot the Chief Forester of the redefined U.S. Forest Service and signed the Act transferring the Nation’s Forest Reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. This Act gave USDA its first authority to protect forestlands and the water resources they produce. Pinchot, Roosevelt, and their contemporaries believed in the wise use and management of all the Earth's natural resources, and began a nationwide Conservation Movement.
In the early 1900’s, the Department was conducting soil surveys, identifying “rough gullied land” and the resulting sediment that made its way to nearby creeks, streams, and rivers. In the 1920’s, Hugh Hammond Bennett, a USDA soil scientist who later became the first Chief of my agency, drew upon his observations about soil erosion’s impacts on agriculture. He was evangelistic in delivering his message on natural resource conservation and his writings and speeches were sprinkled with admonitions about the “evil of erosion”, how “rainwater running wild” would result from poor land management, and other interesting phrases. Concerning water pollution from sediment and nutrients, Bennett made note of “the waste material marching down to the Gulf of Mexico.”
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Congress responded to natural resource degradation in many ways. Congress authorized the formation of soil conservation experiment stations; it created the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, marking the beginning of public-sector erosion control assistance on private agricultural land; it formed the Soil Erosion Service, later named the Soil Conservation Service; and it established controls for livestock on public lands that began to prevent overgrazing and soil deterioration. Many of these new initiatives were responses to the devastation caused by poor land management during a period of terrible droughts – commonly called the “Dust Bowl.” Other water resource protection authorities were established for USDA in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Clean Water Act Brings New Emphasis –
When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it triggered a new national emphasis on the problems created by poor land and water management practices. Congress appropriately recognized the differences between point and nonpoint sources of pollution, and it established differing approaches to solving these distinct problems. New emphasis on water quality concerns also occurred at USDA and it has been of critical importance to our natural resource conservation work ever since. USDA’s agencies that work on natural resource issues – including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Forest Service, Farm Service Agency, Agricultural Research Service, the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, and Economic Research Service – have emphasized water quality issues related to agricultural and forest land management in their program delivery, research, education, and extension efforts.
These efforts, performed in partnership with local soil and water conservation districts, State and Federal conservation and natural resource agencies, and owners and operators of the land, have been instrumental in protecting our soil and water resources. For instance, we are presently experiencing another major drought – the most significant drought since the Dust Bowl days. While the drought has resulted in decreased crop and forage production and imposed financial losses on farmers and ranchers, there is little threat of widespread natural resource degradation as experienced during the Dust Bowl. The poor land management practices of the 1930’s have been replaced by and large with sound soil erosion reduction practices of today, such as conservation tillage, crop residue management, terraces, and conservation buffers. On working cropland and Conservation Reserve Program land, soil erosion caused by wind and water has been cut by 38 percent since 1982. Less erosion means cleaner water, improved fish and wildlife habitat, and more fertile soils. On the subject of conservation buffers, since 1997, over 1.2 million miles of conservation buffers (about 4 million acres) have been established nationally on farms and ranches to protect water resources and establish wildlife habitat. Locally in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the goal of establishing 2,010 miles of conservation buffers by the year 2010 will be completed this year – eight years ahead of the target!
21st Century Opportunities –
Last September, Secretary Veneman released Food and Agriculture Policy: Taking Stock for the New Century. This document provided guidance on future agriculture policy, and identified emerging challenges facing farmers and ranchers across the Nation. A key component dealt with the environment and natural resources, and highlighted policy options for meeting a breadth of conservation challenges including water quality and quantity. A central aspect of the conservation portion of that document was the proposition that market-based solutions should be developed and implemented as a means to achieve conservation goals. The document also pointed out that farmers and ranchers need voluntary conservation opportunities commensurate with the regulatory challenges they face.
Congress responded this year with the 2002 Farm Bill that provides for significant program authorities and funding levels to sustain past environmental gains, accommodate new and emerging environmental concerns, and to adopt a portfolio approach to conservation policies and programs. Secretary Veneman, in recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, stated that “We are pleased with the strong conservation programs contained in the Farm Bill. The changes in the conservation policy support this Administration’s commitment to a voluntary approach and provide the Nation’s producers with a comprehensive portfolio of conservation options including cost-share, incentive, land retirement, and easement programs.”
For example, two provisions of the Farm Bill will substantially strengthen conservation efforts which complement Clean Water Act goals and objectives. Under the 2002 Farm Bill, funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is increased to more than six times previously authorized levels. As a result, USDA will be able to implement a greater number of important conservation projects such as nutrient management and sediment control on an accelerated basis. In the area of wetlands, the popular Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) was authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill for restoration and protection of an additional 1.25 million acres. This is a total land area roughly the size of the state of Delaware. Without question, the opportunities presented in the Farm Bill will lend greatly toward reduction of nutrients and sediments in water bodies as well as reversing wetland conversion on a national scale. The increased conservation funding may address natural resource priorities, such as impaired waterways or critical watersheds, allowing USDA to help advance many of the Clean Water Act’s objectives.
Year of Clean Water Activities –
In this Year of Clean Water, America’s Clean Water Foundation has coordinated a series of national events to focus public attention on the importance of clean water. USDA has participated in the planning of these events along with many other co-sponsors. USDA’s agencies have also conducted their own activities throughout the year to help publicize and inform the public of clean water benefits. We want to publicly applaud the efforts of America’s Clean Water Foundation and its President, Roberta Savage, for her tremendous job of conceiving and coordinating these many activities. We are pleased to have been a part of this celebration and we look forward to our involvement in this month’s events.
In closing, allow me to provide you with an observation by Aldo Leopold, the internationally respected scientist and conservationist who served for 19 years in the U.S. Forest Service (1909-1928) and later served on the faculty of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Wisconsin. As you may know, Leopold espoused the notion of a land ethic and he said this:
"We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive."
Regarding the Clean Water Act and its 30th Anniversary Celebration, I believe Aldo Leopold would suggest that we must continue striving to achieve the higher aspiration of our clean water goals and to continue to help the public adopt a sound land ethic.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, for inviting USDA to participate in today’s hearing. I would be pleased to respond to your questions.
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