Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality: Recent Litigation in the United States

By:Ellen Essman, Senior Research Associate Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

Since the advent of the Clean Water Act (CWA), states have attempted to address agricultural nutrient pollution through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit (NPDES) system. But legal challenges have plagued state NPDES permit programs from their beginnings, and litigation has become a common tool for reducing water quality impacts from manure and other agricultural nutrients. States have developed their own water quality laws and policies, and there have been legal challenges to those as well. These legal challenges arise from environmental interests and impacted neighbors and communities and can be pre-emptive or reactionary. Our newest report for the National Agricultural Law Center examines litigation involving agricultural nutrients from 2018 through 2020. 

In the report, the cases are broken down into several categories. We examine what the courts have to say when it comes to NPDES permits for individual farms and whether they are properly issued by states, whether or not the government (state and federal) is following its own laws and regulations when carrying out water pollution policies, the validity of state CAFO General Discharge permits, and whether or not neighboring landowners have redress for potential agricultural runoff. Some of the cases are challenges to state water quality laws, or the issuance of an NPDES permit.  A few other cases directly target agricultural producers.  The report is entitled Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality: Recent Litigation in the United States, and can be found here

In addition to the paper, we also recently updated part of our nutrient management project on the National Agricultural Law Center’s website.  The project was first published last year, and includes a report and a state chart. The chart tracks which states require nutrient management plans, nutrient application restrictions, and certification and education for nutrient applicators, and can be found here. The chart also provides links to states’ nutrient management laws and regulations.  A few changes and additions have been made to state laws and regulations within the chart.

The USDA’s National Agriculture Library funded our research on these related projects, which we conducted in partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center.