Industrial agriculture thrives on its ability to skulk away from — or, to use economist’s argot, "externalize" — the costs of its considerable ecological messes.

Often, it does so with the tacit approval of the federal government, in direct violation of federal law. In Iowa, for example, the state’s 2,100 CAFOs (confined-animal feedlot operations) regularly violate the Clean Water Act by failing to adequately dispose of the 50 million tons of waste they produce each year, the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project showed in a 2004 report.

Three years later, the EPA — the federal agency charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act — has done nothing to remedy the situation. Now, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences chides the EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act in the intensive agriculture zones of the upper Mississippi, where agriculture runoff — mainly fertilizer — seeps into the river and collects in the Gulf of Mexico, causing an annual dead zone the size of New Jersey.

In both the case of Iowa’s CAFOs and the protection of the Mississippi as a whole, a kind of feeble "states’ rights" policy seems to hold sway. Nearly 30 years ago, the EPA handed over Clean Water Act enforcement of Iowa’s CAFOs to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. And in three decades, that agency has done, to use a Britishism, bugger-all to protect the state’s citizens and streams from CAFO waste, treating the Clean Water Act like a useless piece of paper.

Here is the Environmental Integrity Project:

Since [the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, or DNR] received authority to implement and enforce the Clean Water Act in 1978, its program has failed to keep pace with dramatic changes in Iowa’s livestock industry. IDNR is aware of its failure to regulate CAFOs under the Clean Water Act, and even acknowledged that "the most obvious threat to maintaining good chemical water quality in Iowa surface waters is the recent expansion of the confined animal feeding industry."

As a result, "DNR has allowed CAFOs to illegally discharge millions of gallons of manure into hundreds of rivers and streams, killing millions of fish and contributing to widespread water quality impairments." For a citizen’s perspective on what it means to live among minimally regulated CAFOs, see this first-person account published Wednesday on Grist.

Results of the EPA’s plan to let states regulate ag runoff into the Mississippi have been equally ruinous. According to the National Academy of Sciences report, each state has its own enforcement regime; and "many of the ten states along the river … allocate only small amounts of funds for water quality monitoring and related activities." For its part, the EPA plays no effective role in coordinating efforts to protect the waterway — making the Mississippi “an ‘orphan'” from a water quality monitoring and assessment perspective."

The report also implicates other federal agencies for the cascade of fertilizer pollution fouling up the Mississippi and the Gulf. The Farm Bill’s commodity title rewards farmers for producing as much as they can, a de facto incentive to apply copious loads of nitrogen fertilizer. Generous federal support for biofuel, completely untethered from any ecological concerns, has caused a spike in acreage devoted to corn — a crop that requires heavy lashings of nitrogen. Commodity payments and biofuel subsidies tend to overwhelm the Farm Bill’s conservation programs, meaning farmers have far more incentives to overproduce than to protect waterways.

Given current political realities, the best we can hope for is that the rebuke from the National Academy of Sciences will goad the EPA into taking charge of enforcing the Clean Water Act along the Mississippi — and crack down on systemic overapplication of fertilizer. That would be the stick. The carrot would be a vigorous and well-funded conservation title in the 2007 Farm Bill, currently languishing in the Senate Agriculture Committee.

I recently asked Aimee Wittman of the excellent Sustainable Agriculture Coalition what a conservation title that would effectively address the runoff issue might look like. Here’s what she wrote:

The Conservation Security Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program are the two major "working lands" conservation programs that either reward farmers (CSP) or provide cost share payments (EQIP) for farmers that incorporate practices that decrease erosion and runoff (buffer strips, cover crops, etc.) We are trying to increase funding for CSP in particular so that it can be available to all eligible farmers on a nationwide basis and because, unlike EQIP, it rewards the very best farm practices rather than helping farmers come into compliance with existing water quality laws. We want also want to reform EQIP so that the cost share payments cannot be used to build or expand CAFOs and so there is a lower cap on total cost share payments, from $450,000 to $240,000 (this was a language change made in the 2002 farm bill).

Conservation compliance — we are advocating for stronger measures within conservation compliance so that it is expanded to cover all cropland that is eroding at unsustainable rates. This "program" (not really a program in and of itself) is a requirement for anyone getting commodity payments. Related to that is:

Sodbuster — this program currently requires anyone turning over new sod (and getting payments) on highly erodible land to have a conservation plan that includes erosion-prevention methods. We want this to become a "Sodsaver" program so that anyone busting sod will not get any commodity payments on that land. This would discourage people form turning over grassland to row crops which would prevent ag runoff from occurring in the first place.