Watershed Land Use Controls: A Turning Point for Agriculture and Water Quality

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This commentary recommends that state and local governments, supported by federal guidance, technical assistance, and funding, create and implement a comprehensive and holistic approach to agricultural natural resource conservation, land use planning, and land management, which incorporates watershed-based land use controls and regulation of the effects of agricultural land use on other critical natural resources, specifically water. The article reviews existing legal tools, including local comprehensive planning; agricultural districts; agricultural protection zoning; cluster zoning; transfer of development rights (TDR) programs; growth management laws; farmland loss mitigation policies; state and local right-to-farm laws; farm viability programs; tax relief credit; and abatement programs. It also discusses the use of relatively new and innovative approaches including Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) provided to support environmentally friendly farming practices and a standardized certification of related farm products. The commentary argues for the enactment and adequate funding of watershed-level conservation districts with land use and zoning authority is essential to address the cumulative environmental effects of modern agricultural land use. These new watershed-level conservation districts should build on the existing framework in place for county-level soil and water conservation districts, as well as the seven decades of voluntary agricultural natural resources conservation and land use planning.

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