To protect Mississippi River basin watersheds from agricultural pollution by developing science-based policies, engaging regulatory agencies and legislators, and educating the public and media on the problems caused by agricultural pollution and the success or failure of current conservation programs to address these problems.

The Situation
The Problems
The Solutions
What is MRC Doing to Reduce Pollution from Agriculture?
Policy Recommendations


MEA Algae 1
The waters in the Mississippi River basin – the ones we use every day for swimming, boating, fishing, and even drinking – are being polluted by cropland and livestock operations. Agriculture pollutes more waterways than any other industry. Therefore, this pollution must be significantly abated in order to improve the quality of water throughout the Mississippi River Basin and reduce the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The MRC has made reducing excess nitrogen and phosphorus that comes from farms and livestock operations a priority.


The scale and impact of agricultural pollution is enormous. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the most common agricultural pollutants found in public waters in the Mississippi River Basin. These chemicals contribute to the growth of harmful algae, fish kills, animal deaths, and the classification of some drinking water sources as unsafe for the public. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from farms in the Mississippi River Basin also contributes to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an area devoid of life that forms each summer.

The MRC Agriculture Group focuses on reducing the contributions of these major causes of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Basin’s rivers, lakes, and streams:

  • Fertilizer Runoff from Farms. Farms apply fertilizer to their crops to increase crop yields. Applying fertilizer months ahead of the growing season and over-applying it in general are serious problems, but even when fertilizer is applied at appropriate times and rates, some of it ends up in the water. Some farm fields lose over a third of the fertilizer applied.
  • Animal Waste from Livestock Operations. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are large industrial operations that raise large numbers of animals for food. Runoff from animal waste that is improperly stored or improperly applied to crop land as fertilizer can wash into waterways.
  • Erosion. Decades after the Dust Bowl, farmland soil erosion is still a problem for the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico. In the absence of state or federal regulations restricting erosion rates, states in the Basin rely on voluntary efforts to curb the loss of soil. Government agencies offer voluntary cost-share conservation programs to protect farmland from excessive erosion; however, these conservation programs cannot compete with the opportunity for profits to be made from high market prices for crops, especially given the government-supported subsidy and crop insurance programs. The high crop prices and availability of subsidized insurance have enticed many farmers to undertake more risky practices than they might otherwise in an effort to increase short-term productivity, such as farming marginal land that is highly erodible or draining wetlands to increase farmable land acreage.
  • Insufficient Oversight. The federal Clean Water Act regulates CAFOs as point sources, but delegates responsibility to control soil erosion and runoff from cropland to the states. Unfortunately, enforcement of CAFO regulations is often insufficient and understaffed and most states have not developed regulations or other controls for cropland runoff.

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Ending farm runoff’s exemption from the Clean Water Act would provide necessary legal leverage to tackle the agricultural pollution problem. Unfortunately, ending the decades-old exemption is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, if ever. Therefore, a more likely solution scenario is for states to act individually. The least desirable and effective path is the status quo, whereby farmers voluntarily choose to take actions that result in less polluted runoff from their farms.

There is no single silver bullet that will solve the agricultural pollution problem. However, there is a huge toolbox that individual farmers and states can access to come up with solutions. Tools that should be considered include the following.

State-Level Solutions:

  • Develop and implement Nutrient Reduction Strategies designed to meet clean water goals for local rivers and lakes and reduce the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Adopt state laws that limit pollution in stormwater runoff from farm fields.
  • Improve enforcement of state and federal CAFO regulations.
  • Support expanding Conservation Compliance provisions of the federal Farm Bill to more farms and outcomes.
  • Target the limited available public funding for conservation activities to priority watersheds in order to have the greatest impact.

Farm-Level Solutions:

  • Base fertilizer application rates on soil tests.
  • Minimize soil tillage.
  • Use continuous living cover.
  • Apply fertilizer when it is needed by a growing crop.
  • Treat gully erosion.
  • Do not apply chemical fertilizer or animal waste on snow, ice, or frozen ground.
  • Restrict cattle access to waterways.


The MRC Agriculture Group closely monitors the causes and effects of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the waters of the Mississippi River basin as well as the programs designed by states and the federal government to combat the problem, and does the following:

  • Advocates for strong and effective conservation compliance policies, stormwater management programs, and livestock operation regulations,
  • Educates the public, media, and decision-makers about the need for cleaner water,
  • Participates in the US Department of Agriculture’s State Technical Committees, and
  • Serves as experts representing environmental interests in multi-stakeholder policy processes.


“MRC Principles for State Agricultural Water Quality Certification Programs”, MRC Agriculture Group, 2012
Background: In 2012, Minnesota announced its new Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. The program seeks to accelerate the adoption of recommended management practices on Minnesota’s agricultural lands. If farmers adopt practices that benefit water quality, they will be provided with regulatory certainty. While we support state efforts to increase agricultural conservation, we are concerned that this latest voluntary program will not succeed in achieving significant reductions in nutrient pollution. But knowing that other states will probably follow Minnesota’s lead, members of the MRC Agriculture Group came up with these 11 principles for successful state agricultural certification programs.

“MRC Recommendations for Cropland in State Nutrient Reduction Strategies”, MRC Agriculture Group, 2014 and
“MRC Recommendations for Livestock in State Nutrient Reduction Strategies”, MRC Agriculture Group, 2014

Background: The EPA has asked states along the Mississippi River to develop Nutrient Reduction Strategies. These strategies should set goals for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus loading to surface waters and describe plans to achieve these goals. It is important that strategies contain new initiatives and funding streams, instead of just describing existing policies and programs. Members of the MRC Agriculture Group developed recommendations for how states can reduce nutrient pollution from cropland and livestock operations.

“Cultivating Clean Water:  State-Based Regulation of Agricultural Runoff Pollution”, Environmental Law & Policy Center, 2010
Background: Some US states have passed laws that address agricultural pollution. These laws and associated regulations and programs may serve as models for Mississippi River Basin states wanting to take action. This report summarizes state agricultural non-point source programs. The report also highlights five agricultural conservation practices that the MRC Agriculture Group considers important to implement at much larger scales. For each practice, there is discussion of what individual states are doing and what the MRC Agriculture Group considers necessary elements of an effective program.