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3. Environmental Requirements & Incentive Programs For Nutrient Management

Page Information and Links to Other Resources

This is the third of four informational sections under the area Nutrient Management. The following are links to other informational sections under the area Nutrient Management:
  1. Water Quality Problems Related To Nutrient Pollution
  2. What Is Agriculture's Contribution To Nutrient Pollution?
  3. How Can Producer's Meet Requirements For Nutrient Management?

For a list of fact sheets under this area click on the following link: Nutrient Management Fact Sheets.

Links to information on this page are to HTML resources unless otherwise indicated. Links to resources in PDF require Adobe Acrobat Reader® which may be downloaded by clicking on the following link: Adobe Acrobat Reader.


Nutrient management recognizes that nutrients are both economic resources necessary for crop production and potential pollutants in surface and ground water. The goal of good nutrient management is to provide for profitable crop production while minimizing nutrient losses from agricultural lands in edge-of-field runoff and leaching from the root zone.

Nutrient management can reduce impacts on water quality by reducing the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen available for runoff or erosion loss or for leaching. Equally important, nutrient management can make farming operations more efficient and economical by keeping tighter controls on the purchase, storage, and application of nutrients from all sources and can increase profits by avoiding the purchase of unnecessary or excessive nutrients.

Federal Laws

Rather than applying fixed regulations, federal laws generally require or encourage states, tribes, and territories to develop their own programs for management of nonpoint source pollution from agriculture as well as other sources. In support of these programs, federal agencies such as USEPA and USDA set standards and offer financial incentives and technical guidance to assist state, tribes, and territories in implementing their programs. Most of the federal programs for nonpoint source pollution and agriculture are based on two laws: the Clean Water Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.

Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the primary federal law that protects the nation's lakes, rivers, aquifers and coastal areas. The CWA has five main elements: (1) a system of minimum national industrial effluent standards, (2) water quality standards, (3) a discharge permit program that translates these standards into enforceable limits, (4) provisions for special problems such as toxic chemicals and oil spills, and (5) a revolving construction loan program for building public wastewater treatment facilities.

Until 1987, programs in the Clean Water Act were primarily directed at point source pollution—wastes discharged from discrete and identifiable sources, such as pipes. Little attention was given to nonpoint source pollution (stormwater runoff from agricultural lands, forests, construction sites, and urban areas), despite growing evidence that it represents the majority of the nation's remaining water pollution problems. Congress amended the CWA in 1987 to establish the Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program because it recognized the need for greater emphasis on local nonpoint source control.

Under Section 319, states and tribes are required to prepare and submit a State Assessment Report that identifies waters impaired by different categories of nonpoint source pollution and describes the processes for identifying practices and measures to control each category as well as the state programs for implementation of these measures. Once the report is approved by US EPA, a state/tribe can receive grant money to support a wide variety of activities including technical assistance, financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, demonstration projects, and monitoring to assess the success of specific nonpoint source implementation projects. You should contact your state environmental agency or department of agriculture to learn about the provisions of your state's nonpoint source assessment. That assessment may outline specific nutrient management practices and support programs that could apply to your operation.

State nonpoint source control programs under Section 319 have made great strides toward understanding and controlling nonpoint source pollution. Examples of state 319 programs include:

Success stories from 319 programs across the nation are documented in reports issued by the EPA.

TMDL – Total Maximum Daily Load

In the process of managing your farm to reduce runoff pollution or to comply with state and federal requirements, you may come across the term "Total Maximum Daily Load," or "TMDL." The TMDL program was created by the 1972 Clean Water Act as a method to clean up pollution of rivers, lakes, and estuaries by working together on all sources of pollution to a waterbody, not just one factory or one farm. States report that over 40% of assessed waters are still too polluted for fishing or swimming, even after 28 years of water pollution control efforts. Today, we understand that many different sources of pollution can degrade water and that good water quality must be achieved by sharing the responsibility for clean-up among all sources in a watershed.


A Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is the maximum amount of a specific pollutant—like phosphorus, nitrogen, or sediment—that a waterbody can tolerate without violating state water quality standards.  Water quality standards are conditions such as clarity, oxygen content, bacteria count, chemical content, or temperature set by States, Territories, and Tribes to support the appropriate uses, such as drinking water supply, swimming, and aquatic fishing, for each waterbody. A TMDL is the sum of the allowable loads of a single pollutant from all contributing point and nonpoint sources in the watershed. The calculation includes a margin of safety to ensure that the waterbody can be used for the purposes the State has designated.

The 303(d) List

Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act requires States to identify waters not meeting State water quality standards and to identify the pollutants responsible. The result is called the "Impaired or Threatened Waters List" or simply the "303(d) list,"—the master list of waters that need to be cleaned up. The State must set priorities for TMDL development based on the list and must ultimately conduct the TMDL process for each pollutant for each listed waterbody.

So far, the 303(d) lists have shown that 218 million Americans live within 10 miles of an impaired waterbody. States have identified about 21,000 polluted river segments, lakes, and estuaries and over 300,000 river and shore miles and 5 million lake acres that do not meet water quality standards. Excess sediments, nutrients, and harmful microorganisms are leading reasons for water quality impairments. An estimated 47% of impairments are due to a combination of point and nonpoint sources, 43% due to nonpoint sources only, and 10% due to point sources only.

The 303(d) list in your state is a public document. You may be interested to learn if a stream or lake near you is on the list and scheduled for a TMDL. You can also propose to add a waterbody to the list if you know or suspect it to be polluted. To see the list, contact your state environmental agency or department of agriculture, or contact your regional EPA office through the links at the end of this section.

Elements of a TMDL

The process of conducting a TMDL analysis and preparing the TMDL implementation plan is a series of steps that include defining the problems, setting goals, and identifying a strategy for achieving those goals. Specific steps include:

  • Starting with the 303(d) list, define the water quality problem and identify the pollutant for which the TMDL will be established.
  • Define numeric targets for the pollutant that will lead to achievement of water quality standards.
  • Establish the total maximum daily load for the pollutant received by the waterbody.
  • Set the amount of pollutant reduction required to meet this maximum load.
  • Identify sources and evaluate pollutant loadings in the watershed.
  • Select the pollutant allocation among sources in the watershed that results in achievement of water quality standards. This step may assign part of the needed reduction to farms in the watershed, along with other sources such as urban land or wastewater treatment plants.
  • Develop strategies for reducing water pollution including selection of agricultural BMPs such as nutrient management or erosion control.
  • Assess progress made by implementation of the strategy with follow-up monitoring.

It is important to remember that calculations to establish TMDLs are subject to public review as defined in the state's continuing planning process. You may wish to get involved in a TMDL process that might affect your farm and community.

TMDL Resources

TMDLs have been and continue to be subject to a complex and sometimes controversial legal and regulatory struggle. As a result, rules and procedures for both states and watersheds may change. For current and detailed information on TMDLs, you may wish to follow some of the following links:

EPA Regional TMDL Web Sites
  1. EPA Region 1 - CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT

  2. EPA Region 3 - DE, DC, MD, PA, VA, WV

  3. EPA Region 4 - AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC

  4. EPA Region 5 - IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI

  5. EPA Region 6 - AR, LA, NM, OK, TX

  6. EPA Region 7 - IA, KS, MO, NE

  7. EPA Region 8 - CO, MT, ND, SD, UT, WY

  8. EPA Region 9 - AZ, CA, HI, NV, AS, CNMI, GU

  9. EPA Region 10 - AK, ID, OR, WA

Environmental Protection Agency

Conservation Technology Information Center

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

On December 15, 2002, the Administrator signed the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) Final Rule. The final CAFO rule revises, strengthens, and clarifies EPA's regulatory requirements for CAFOs under the Clean Water Act. The rule requires that all CAFOs apply for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and develop and implement a nutrient management plan. The effluent guidelines in the final rule establish performance expectations for existing and new sources to ensure appropriate storage of manure, as well as expectations for proper land application practices at the CAFO. The final rule also contains new regulatory requirements for dry-litter chicken operations. Follow the link to more information about Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planning for CAFOs.

Coastal Zone Management Act

The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) encourages states/tribes to preserve, protect, restore or enhance natural coastal resources such as wetlands, floodplains, estuaries, beaches, dunes, barrier islands, and coral reefs, as well as the fish and wildlife using those habitats. The provisions of the act apply to areas bordering the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, Gulf of Mexico, Long Island Sound, and Great Lakes. Participation by states/tribes is voluntary. To encourage states/tribes to participate, the act makes federal financial assistance available to develop and implement a comprehensive coastal management program. Most eligible states/tribes participate in the program.

In its reauthorization of the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1990, Congress identified nonpoint source pollution as a major factor in the continuing degradation of coastal waters. Congress also recognized that effective solutions to nonpoint source pollution could be implemented at the state/tribe and local levels. Therefore, in the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990 (CZARA), Congress added Section 6217 which calls upon states/tribes with federally-approved coastal zone management programs to develop and implement coastal nonpoint pollution control programs. The Section 6217 program is administered at the federal level jointly by EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).

Under the authority of CZARA, EPA published Guidance Specifying Management Measures for Sources of Nonpoint Pollution in Coastal Waters (1993). This guidance documents management measures and practices that can be applied to agricultural sources of nonpoint pollution, including nutrient management, confined animal facilities, erosion and sedimentation, pesticide management, grazing management, and irrigation water management.

In 2003, EPA updated and expanded the 1993 coastal nonpoint source manual to address the control of agricultural nonpoint source pollution for the entire United States. National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture highlights best available, economically achievable means of combating nonpoint source pollution, and discusses monitoring techniques, load estimation techniques, and watershed approaches.

As noted previously, many incentive programs exist that provide technical and financial assistance for farmers and ranchers to implement nutrient management on a voluntary basis.

Safe Drinking Water Act

Through the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the EPA sets national health-based standards for tap water to protect against contaminants that may be found in our nation’s water supply. These legally enforceable standards apply to each of the 170,000 public water system in the U.S. Primary standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water. These standards set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for nitrate nitrogen of 10 mg/L (parts per million) for infants below the age of six months. Visit the list of regulated contaminants for more information.

Originally, the SDWA focused on treatment as the primary means of providing safe drinking water at the tap. Later amendments to the law added requirements for actions to protect drinking water and its sources, including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and ground water wells. The SDWA now recognizes source water protection as an important component of safe drinking water. States and water suppliers must conduct assessments of water sources to see where they may be vulnerable to contamination. Water systems may also voluntarily adopt programs to protect their watershed or wellhead and states can use legal authorities from other laws to prevent pollution. Nutrient management may be an important tool in controlling sources of nitrate to drinking water in such situations.

Federal Incentive Programs

Major federal incentive programs include:

  • Agriculture on Indian Lands
    The Department of Health and Human Services administers the Agriculture on Indian Lands program that provides financial assistance for farmland improvements on tribal lands such as designing land leveling, farm drainage, cropping patterns, crop varieties, and other practices that may contribute to nutrient management. Additional assistance may be available through the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Please note that the Bureau of Indian Affairs website is not currently available due to pending litigation with this agency.

  • Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA)
    Administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, AMA provides cost share assistance to agricultural producers to voluntarily address issues such as water management, water quality, and erosion control by incorporating conservation into their farming operations. Producers may construct or improve water management structures or irrigation structures; plant trees for windbreaks or to improve water quality; and mitigate risk through production diversification or resource conservation practices, including soil erosion control, integrated pest management, or transition to organic farming.

  • Animal Feeding Operations (AFO)
    The Natural Resources Conservation Service helps AFO owners and operators to achieve their production and natural resource conservation goals through development and implementation of comprehensive nutrient management plans (CNMPs).  Each CNMP includes the following characteristics:
    • A subset of a conservation plan that is unique to the animal feeding operation.
    • Combines management activities and practices into an integrated system.
    • Site specific.
    • Voluntary.
    • Focuses on nutrient and sediment aspects of water quality.

  • Conservation Security Program (CSP)
    The Conservation Security Program is a new federal farm program from the
    2002 Farm bill that provides financial incentives and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers who develop conservation plans on their working
    lands. The program provides payments for producers who historically have practiced good stewardship on their agricultural lands and incentives for those who want to do more. The CSP has often been referred to as a "green payments" program that rewards all farmers and ranchers who voluntarily develop a Conservation Security Plan to protect soil, water, air, plant and animal resources. The CSP is unique among conservation programs in that Congress passed it with no funding cap, similar to commodity subsidies. To achieve maximum conservation and environmental protection, CSP was written into law as an entitlement program, open and available to all who qualify. At present, the final rule and budget appropriation for CSP has not yet been released. More information on the Conservation Security Program is available in a NRCS fact sheet on the CSP [PDF, 49kb].

  • Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA)
    Conservation Technical Assistance is provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help individuals, communities, local and state governments, and others plan and implement natural resource conservation systems on their lands. Conservation Technical Assistance is available to reduce erosion, improve soil and water quality, improve and conserve wetlands, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, improve air quality, improve pasture and range land conditions, reduce upstream flooding, and improve woodlands.

  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
    Provides technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial manner. The program provides assistance to farmers and ranchers in complying with Federal, State, and tribal environmental laws, and encourages environmental enhancement.

    The EQIP program is funded through the Commodity Credit Corporation. The purposes of the program are achieved through the implementation of an EQIP plan of operations that includes structural and land management practices on eligible land. Contracts of up to 10 years are made with eligible producers.

    Cost-share payments may be made to implement one or more eligible conservation practices, such as animal waste management facilities, terraces, filter strips, tree planting, and permanent wildlife habitat. Incentive payments can be made to implement one or more land management practices, such as nutrient management, pest management, and grazing land management.

  • Soil and Water Conservation Assistance (SWCA)
    Provides cost share and incentive payments to farmers and ranchers to voluntarily address threats to soil, water, and related natural resources, including grazing land, wetlands, and wildlife habitat. SWCA will help landowners comply with Federal and state environmental laws and make beneficial, cost-effective changes to cropping systems, grazing management, nutrient management, and irrigation.

  • USDA - Farm Service Agency: Conservation Programs
    While the Natural Resources Conservation Service provides most of the technical assistance on the above programs, the USDA - Farm Services Agency (FSA) administers programs that provide incentives and payments to farmers and ranchers under several of the same conservation programs, such as EQIP, CRP, and CREP.

  • USDA - Natural Resources Conservation Service: Conservation Programs

Regional Incentive Programs

Regional programs that focus on a multi-state resource may have their own incentive programs for agricultural nutrient management. Some examples include:

State Programs

In some states where water quality problems from excess nutrients have become severe, nutrient management is required. Examples include:

In 1999, the USDA and USEPA through the Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations [PDF] set a national goal for all animal feeding operations to have Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans (CNMP). A CNMP looks at how all nutrients are used and managed on the farm, with emphasis on animal waste and includes consideration of management practices affecting runoff, erosion, and losses of other pollutants from animal wastes. In some states, any animal feeding operation that requires a permit is required to have a CNMP.

You should check with your state Department of Agriculture or environmental agency to learn of any laws concerning nutrient management that may apply to your operation. Follow this link to a list of links to state agriculture departments and nutrient management information. For detailed information on all environmental requirements for agriculture in your state, you may wish to visit the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture web site: Environmental Laws Affecting State Agriculture [Links to page with documents in PDF].

In most cases where nutrient management is required by state law, technical assistance is also available for producers to help them comply with requirements. In addition, many incentive programs exist that provide technical and financial assistance for farmers and ranchers to implement nutrient management on a voluntary basis.

State Incentive Programs

Many states operate their own incentive or cost-share programs to promote nutrient management statewide or in special project areas. Check with your state Agriculture Department, environmental agency, or local conservation district to learn what programs may be available to you. Some examples include:

Last Updated: December 19, 2003 14:13


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