Tag Archives: nonpoint source

The Runoff Conundrum

When a summer storm crosses the eastern plains, drowning farmlands in a deluge, more than water ends up flowing into Colorado’s rivers, lakes and streams.

On April 13, 2017, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education was joined by Troy Bauder, with Colorado State University Extension, for a webinar in which part of the discussion centered on nonpoint source pollution. Bauder focuses on working with agricultural producers to reduce nutrient losses on their fields.

Runoff, a nonpoint source, occurs when there is more water than the soil can absorb. Agricultural runoff carries a bit of everything it touches—excess fertilizer, animal waste, soil and more. Water that is not absorbed into the ground moves across the land, picking up whatever it can carry, and drains into surface water and groundwater sources.

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Photo Credit: Lynn Betts

“Ag nutrients—nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)—are absolutely required for productive agriculture,” Bauder says. “Of course, we need good management to prevent the accumulation of too much N and P in our soils and to reduce the potential for movement to surface and ground water.”

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Photo Credit: Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

When nitrogen and phosphorus—two nutrients found in agricultural runoff—are deposited in excess in water bodies, it leads to algal blooms, reduced dissolved oxygen content, which is harmful to aquatic plants and animals, and can compromise drinking water supplies.

If rain falls on 30 farms, with 20 of them using fertilizers to supplement nutrients in the soil, and the excess of these nutrients finds its way into the runoff, who is to blame for compromising water quality? Who is responsible for nutrient pollution? Since no one farm can be blamed for the degradation of water quality, agricultural runoff is a challenging nonpoint source pollutant to manage and regulate.

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Photo Credit: USDA

Colorado’s Regulation 85, a nutrient policy passed in 2012, regulates point sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and chlorophyll a in surface water, setting discharge limits and requiring monitoring; however, Regulation 85 currently allows for a voluntary, incentivized, approach for reducing nutrient pollution that originates in nonpoint source pollution.

“We’ve partnered with CDPHE [the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] to produce some resources and an outreach program called Colorado AG Water Quality,” Bauder continues. “The purpose of this outreach effort is to get the word out to growers about how Reg. 85 could potentially affect them.”

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Photo Credit: USDA

Taking ownership of nutrient pollution and implementing best management practices gives agriculture the opportunity to avoid stringent state regulations. In 2022, the current, voluntary, approach will be evaluated to determine if progress has been made with the implementation and adoption of best management practices (BMP) as they relate to nonpoint source pollution, agriculture and water quality. Additional regulations may be considered depending on the results.

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Conservation Tillage Photo Credit: USDA

Reducing nutrient pollution is achieved through the implementation of BMPs, including improvements in fertilizer management, conservation tillage, irrigation, manure handling and soil erosion. The adoption of BMPs by Colorado agricultural producers benefits agriculture, as well as water quality. When implemented successfully, not only will there be a reduction in nutrient pollution, but it will reduce the need for future regulation.

“We want to work with our growers on the agronomic and economic feasibility of these practices to help them understand how they can help their bottom line,” Bauder says.

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Nitrogen Application                              Photo Credit: Bob Nichols

BMP effectiveness depends on what is known as the 4 R’s: Growers need to use the right amount (rate), right placement, right timing and right source. Combined with improved irrigation management, these BMPs improve the efficacy of the nutrients and prevent the potential for movement, which often results in nonpoint source pollution. Irrigation management can include altering the method by which water is delivered with system upgrades, combined with scheduling watering at the right time of day and in the proper amounts to reduce runoff. Ultimately, implementing these BMPs will benefit the grower’s bottom line while simultaneously protecting water sources from being impacted by nutrients.

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Photo Credit: USDA

“It’s definitely important to engage growers early and often in the process,” Bauder concludes. “Not only the growers, but their representatives, commodity groups and the people who advise them.”

While nutrients are certainly necessary for successful and sustainable agriculture, the execution of BMPs will help mitigate nutrient loss and movement, and in turn, reduce nonpoint source pollution due to runoff. Providing incentives, tools and resources to growers is critical to BMP implementation and success, as well as keeping Colorado’s water sources clean and reducing the impact of nutrient pollution.

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Photo Credit: NOAA

Learn more about cyanotoxins, algal blooms, public health and efforts to reduce nutrients in our water when you listen to the recording of this April 2017 webinar presented by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and offered in partnership with Colorado Water Congress with support from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Hear about how municipal recreational lakes are monitoring and working to reduce algal blooms, discover how agricultural producers coming together and implementing best practices to minimize nutrient runoff and learn the basics of toxic algal blooms.

hw_fall_2016_final_coverFind further coverage about this topic in the Public Health Issue of Headwaters Magazine.

Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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Water Quality Control Division Partners Up to Reduce Nutrients Pollution

By Tammy Allen, Restoration and Protection Unit Manager, Water Quality Control Division

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Nitrogen being applied to growing corn. Credit: Lynn Betts/Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

Unlike pollution that comes out of the end of a pipe into a stream or lake, nonpoint source pollution makes its way to Colorado’s waterways as runoff across the land when it rains or snows. As is the case nationally, nonpoint sources of pollution cause the majority of negative impacts seen in Colorado’s streams and lakes. In some cases, these impacts lead to public health risks from pollutants such as pathogens or those that bioaccumulate up the food chain to dangerous levels. Fish and the aquatic communities on which they rely are also impacted which can affect recreation and the state’s tourism economy. Nonpoint source pollution is not regulated in Colorado which makes controlling these sources everyone’s responsibility.

In order to fulfill its mission to protect and restore water quality for public health and the environment, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) relies on help from partners to voluntarily address nonpoint sources of pollution that are causing significant water quality impacts. Based on the WQCD’s ongoing evaluation of water quality in the state, the WQCD prioritizes its work with these partners to address nonpoint sources of pollution causing the most statewide impact. To that measure, the WQCD has been working with partners to address pollutants such as metals from legacy mining and selenium from irrigated lands.

There are many nonpoint sources of pollution beyond those tied to metals and selenium, some of which are not addressed in the WQCD’s priorities because water quality standards or other pieces of the regulatory framework upon which the WQCD relies are not yet in place. Nutrients are an example of nonpoint source pollution that have received some attention in Colorado and are now increasing in priority because the WQCD has built a foundation to support the development of statewide nutrient values. This foundation is in Regulation 85, the Nutrients Management Control Regulation.

Nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, are elements that all living organisms need to survive. However, when there is too much phosphorus or nitrogen, negative water quality impacts begin to happen. Excess nutrients can lead to overgrowth of algae, some of which can emit toxins that are harmful to people, pets and aquatic life. These algal blooms also consume large amounts of oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Too much nitrogen in drinking water can be harmful to infants and the chemicals needed to treat nutrient-polluted drinking water can pose risks to public health.

Some of the primary sources of nutrient pollution are fertilizer runoff, animal manure, sewage treatment plant discharges, stormwater runoff, car and power plant emissions, and failing septic tanks. Pollution from agricultural operations is recognized nationwide as a significant source of nutrients that can have a negative impact on the health of watersheds. In Colorado, the current thinking is that agriculture is not as significant a source of nutrient pollution as in other parts of the country. However, in order to address all potential sources of excess nutrients, Regulation 85 encourages the WQCD to proactively collaborate with the agricultural community on voluntary nutrient controls, information and education campaigns about nutrients and monitoring of nutrients to better understand sources and effectiveness of nutrient controls. The WQCD is doing this in partnership with Colorado State University (CSU) through a number of projects.

  1. South Platte Agriculture Nutrients Committee (SPAN): The SPAN, led by CSU, is creating an online library of best management practices for agricultural producers to reduce nutrient pollution to surface waters.
  1. CSU Agriculture Outreach Committee: The WQCD is partnering with CSU to produce outreach materials about Regulation 85 that target agricultural producers. The outreach materials will include brochures, a dedicated website and videos.
  1. CLEAN Center at CSU: The WQCD is participating in CLEAN Center initiatives. The CLEAN Center is a multi-agency collaboration lead by CSU. The mission of the CLEAN Center is to create knowledge, build capacity and forge collaboration to develop and demonstrate sustainable solutions for reduction of nutrient pollution in the nation’s water resources. The Center’s activities are organized around three major themes: understanding the physical system, understanding people and policy and enhancing the capacity for assessment and decision-making.
  1. Soil and Water Analysis Tool (SWAT) Model: The WQCD is working with CSU to produce a statewide nutrient model. The model is based on the SWAT developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas A&M University. This nutrient model will help us predict nutrient pollution problems resulting from various different population growth and agricultural production scenarios.

The WQCD’s work with the agricultural community to control nutrients pollution continues to gain momentum and the WQCD is always looking for new partners to help tell the story about the many successes accomplished by working together to address nonpoint sources of pollution.

Tammy Allen is the Restoration and Protection Unit (RPU) Manager in the Water Quality Control Division of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In collaboration with many partners, the RPU team works to control nonpoint source pollution, a significant source of water quality impacts. The team also develops total maximum daily loads which are cleanup plans for waterbodies that are not meeting water quality standards and works on watershed, regional and statewide water quality planning. Tammy has been in the nonpoint source and water quality planning workgroups since joining the division over 7 years ago.  

Learn more of the basics of Colorado water quality through CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Quality Protection

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