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Policy Perspective: Is Non-Point Source Pollution a Myth?

By Mark Lubell - Posted on 01 December 2010

I've just returned from a trip to Washington DC for a project on social network analysis as a tool for monitoring and evaluation of international development projects. While I was there, I met with a friend of mine at USDA who focuses on developing markets for ecosystem services for agriculture. Like other payment schemes, such markets would provide farmers credit for environmental performance such as carbon sequestration. We debated about whether markets would be better than regulation for non-point source pollution.

This discussion gave me an opportunity to vent on the topic of non-point source pollution. For the most part, non-point source pollution is the third rail of water management and environmental policy. In contrast to point sources (end-of-pipe) such as industrial effluent and sewage treatment plants, non-point sources are diffuse and multiple. The classic examples are runoff from farms, and urban runoff from construction sites or lawns.

The diffuse nature of non-point sources has always been used as an excuse to avoid regulation and rely on voluntary and incentive-based approaches. It is impossible to regulate these sources, so the argument goes. But I think this is a myth. In fact, there are some good examples of regulatory approaches to non-point source pollution. One of the most interesting is the Everglades Best Management Progam (a decent overview is here:, where all of the farmers (mostly sugarcane) in the Everglades Agricultural Area are required to have permits (yes...I did say permits) that identify best management practices for reducing nutrient pollution and also monitor water quality at the level of individual parcels. In other words, every farm is a point source. And this program has been very successful in meeting the discharge goals from the EAA. Unfortunately, the discharge goals of the BMP program are not sufficient to meet the overall water quality standards for the Everglades, which is low nutrient system that tolerates only very small amounts of phosphorous. So the Everglades continues to decline despite a successful non-point source regulatory program.

Another example of regulating non-point source pollution is the "Conditional Waiver" program in California. Here is the link to the Central Coast version: Although California's water quality legislation (1969 Porter Cologne Act--note predating of 1972 Federal Clean Water Act) does not exempt agriculture (unlike the CWA, which does), for a long time agriculture was subject to "conditional waivers of discharge requirements" that had very few rules. Around 2003 the Regional Boards began implementing new conditional waivers with much more stringent requirements, and the process continues today.

Among the interesting aspects of the conditional waiver is a lot of variance across Regional Boards. For example the Central Coast requires on-farm water quality plans, participation in a monitoring group, continuing education and other compliance points. The Central Valley on the other hand, at least when I was studying it a few years go, required only to join a "coalition" group and pay monitoring fees. Regardless of these differences, it is important to recognize the conditional waiver (or is it a permit?) for what it is--a regulatory approach to non-point source pollution.

So what perpetuates the myth of non-point source pollution? While I am claiming it is technically feasible to regulate non-point source pollution, I am NOT saying it is easy! Rather, the transaction costs(monitoring and enforcement) are very high relative to point sources. The most important reasons are that there are many more sources, and the water quality constiuents are difficult to measure and react in complex ways with hydrological (e.g.; dilution and transport) and ecological processes(e.g.; nutrient cycling). So the cost/benefit analysis of a regulatory approach might indeed be quite high when compared head-to-head with a voluntary or incentive based approach.

Regulatory approaches are also politically costly in rural communities. There are lots of farmers and farmworkers in rural communities, and most of them are not particularly trusting of the government or share the liberal political attitudes of the environmentalists pushing the policy from the other side. Furthermore, many of these farmers are quite politically powerful and leaders in their communities; many end up in elected office. They therefore have a lot of political capital to expend in places where policy decisions are made such as regional boards and legislative committees.

Is non-point source pollution a myth? Technically, yes--given the financial resources and political will you can identify and regulate diffuse sources from agriculture and urban runoff. But the major economic and political costs of a regulatory approach have made voluntary and incentive programs more attractive in most regions, most of the time. It will be interesting to watch how this changes as the California and Florida experiments continue, while at the same time new markets are emerging for ecosystem services.