We're not sure what to make of a recently released U.S. Geological Survey study that found no consistently detectable large-scale reductions in nutrient pollution attributable to conservation programs.
Since the 1980s, federal and state officials have promoted a variety of programs targeting soil erosion and nutrient runoff.
The agency analyzed 133 large agricultural watersheds around the country to assess the impacts of the Conservation Reserve Program and conservation tillage methods on stream water quality. Lori Sprague, the author of the study, said researchers have found no significant impacts from the programs.
"When you look at it on a large watershed scale," she told the Capital Press, "we clearly are not seeing the effects of conservation practices yet."
Ag department officials say the programs have tangible localized benefits. Less sediments, phosphorous and nitrogen are getting into streams where these practices have been implemented. Why there have been no large-scale benefits is unclear.
Sprague and her colleagues say it's possible that there is a significant lag time between implementing conservation programs and seeing their impact. Just how long it could take to see some improvement attributable to the programs -- assuming they work at all -- is unknown.
The report comes as programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program are under fire in Washington, D.C. Legislators of both parties have targeted the program as a way to cut the budget and pay for increases in food stamp expenditures. Any suggestion that these programs aren't providing the benefit to justify their expense will provide ammunition to their critics.
If these programs don't have a widescale benefit, they should be dropped in favor of things that do. In the short run, proponents of these programs should put an emphasis on establishing how long it takes to see tangible results. If not now, when?