USDA Program Improves Water Quality In Mississippi River Basin

Water quality in the U.S. remains a major environmental and policy challenge. Water pollution is also a growing and serious problem across much of the world. Tackling water quality problems, particularly from diffuse sources such as agricultural farm fields, is a substantial challenge and much can be learned from the U.S. experience, says a recent World Resources Institute paper assessing the USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI).

More than 15,000 streams, rivers, and lakes in the U.S. are too polluted with nutrient runoff to support wildlife, be enjoyed recreationally, or serve as a drinking water source. In the Mississippi River Basin (MRB), a region that encompasses about 41% of the continental U.S., the majority of the local water quality pollution stems from farming activities involving fertilizer and livestock manure use. The MRB drains into the Gulf of Mexico, where the county’s largest “dead zone,” an oxygen-devoid region, forms every spring and wipes out aquatic life and fisheries.

Few programs have seen widespread success in tackling either local or the Gulf’s growing water quality problems, but an emerging initiative could present a way forward. The USDA launched the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) in 2009. New WRI research finds that with some specific improvements, the MRBI’s new approach could play a key role in improving the nation’s inland and coastal water quality.

A Growing Dead Zone Problem

When water bodies become over-enriched with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus they suffer from eutrophication, a condition in which harmful algae blooms rob the water of oxygen. Eutrophic waters can become “hypoxic,” or hold too little oxygen to support aquatic life, and large, persistent dead zones can occur. According to WRI’s interactive map of eutrophication and hypoxia, more than 500 coastal water bodies around the world currently suffer from dead zones. Most of the nutrient pollution comes from farm use of fertilizers and manure, while other sources include municipal sewage treatment plants and household septic tanks.

An Innovative Approach To Water Quality Management

The USDA has implemented conservation programs for decades in an effort to address on-farm environmental and natural resource problems like water pollution, habitat destruction, and degradation of wetlands. These programs focus on the farm scale, working one-on-one with farmers to solve problems on individual fields through the installation and maintenance of conservation practices like stream-side buffers, cover crops, and nutrient management plans. But while these programs have helped curb soil erosion, preserve wildlife habitat, and improve manure management on individual fields, they have failed to produce results at the scale necessary to cut back enough nutrient and sediment pollution to clean up nearby waterways.

So now the federal government is trying a new tack. The MRBI is one of handful of relatively new initiatives from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) that target conservation funding at the landscape scale rather than operating only at the individual farm-or-field scale.

MRBI is unique in that it uses a targeted watershed project and partnership approach to deliver the same financial and technical assistance NRCS has been providing for years. Rather than working with individual farmers dispersed across the rural landscape, NRCS now uses a portion of conservation program funds to work with many cooperating farmers located in selected, high-priority MRBI watersheds. Partners from state agricultural and water quality agencies, watershed groups, universities, and farm and environmental non-governmental organizations help in the implementation of these watershed projects. The idea is that by targeting multiple, strategically located farms in affected watersheds, MRBI will be able to improve the water quality of a stream or river in that watershed.

By taking this new approach, NRCS and its partners aim to implement the most cost-effective and appropriate conservation practices on a scale adequate enough to reduce the nutrient and sediment runoff impairing the project waterbody. The density and intensity of the conservation effort in an MRBI watershed means that MRBI projects are poised to generate both farm- and landscape-scale benefits. Over time, such projects will hopefully result in measurable improvements in local water quality and reduced dead zones.

Ensuring That The MRBI Leads To Success

The MRBI is still in its initial implementation phase, so it’s too early to assess exactly what impact it’s having on local water quality. We can, however, analyze how well the program is designed to achieve water quality outcomes. WRI’s new working paper, Improving Water Quality: A Review of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative to Target U.S. Farm Conservation Funds, finds that the MRBI is off to a good start, but there is still room for improvement.

We found many strong programmatic and project design elements indicating that MRBI will help improve water quality. The vast majority of the initiative’s projects have partners with both water quality monitoring and conservation expertise. Two-thirds of the reviewed projects have ambitious, outcome-oriented goals that will allow the public to know what kinds of water quality improvements are being sought in the project waterbody. And NRCS, as well as the project leaders, reviewed appropriate scientific data and institutional capacity factors in selecting the MRBI watersheds and sub-watersheds in which to target conservation efforts.

Still, there are ways MRBI can be improved to ensure greater success. For one, monitoring efforts need to be strengthened. Though NRCS is providing oversight of the water quality monitoring stations placed on the fields of some volunteering farms, the agency has not yet taken a leadership role or designated another institution to oversee in-stream and watershed-outlet water quality monitoring. Achieving success requires a comprehensive review of monitoring results at all three scales — field, in-stream, and watershed outlet — which will allow NRCS and the project partners to make mid-course adjustments if needed.

In the medium- and long-term time horizons, we encourage NRCS to accelerate the roll-out of watershed-scale and farm-scale computer modeling tools. These tools will help project leaders conduct effective watershed-based project planning and evaluation. The tools will also enhance the ability of conservation planners to help farmers identify the most cost-effective practices — not only for their fields, but for the targeted watershed project, saving both farmers and taxpayers money. In other words, these tools can help NRCS get the most bang for the increasingly shrinking taxpayer buck.

With a few adjustments, the MRBI could demonstrate significant local water quality improvements over time. This success could not only begin the process of effectively chipping away at the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, it could help demonstrate that conservation-targeting partnerships are critical investments for our shared environmental future.

Read the full USDA report.

Source: Michelle Perez, World Resources Institute

Topics:

Leave a Reply

Crop Inputs Stories

Crop InputsPlatform Specialty Products To Acquire Arysta LifeScience
October 20, 2014
Once the acquisition is complete, Platform Specialty Products will combine Arysta LifeScience with previously acquired companies Agriphar and Chemtura Crop Solutions. Read More
MicronutrientsMicronutrients Going Macro
September 9, 2014
Between 2014’s fantastic growing conditions and a heightened awareness on plant nutrition, the major players in micronutrients are gearing up for another big year. Read More
FertilizerFall Fertility 2014: Forecasting Fertilizer Use
September 7, 2014
Great crops this year have tapped the soil, and fall work is definitely called for, but how challenging will that get? Read More
FungicidesSudden Death Syndrome, Brown Stem Rot Reported In Indiana Soybeans
September 3, 2014
Farmers and retailers should be watching for symptoms of these two diseases over the next few weeks as they are best managed through preventative methods. Read More

Top 100 Articles

CropLife 100CHS: Driving Momentum To Help Farmer-Owners Grow
December 11, 2014
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading farmer-owned cooperative and a global energy, grains and foods company, must capture new opportunities to Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT, Verdesian Ink Distribution Agreement
December 9, 2014
The agreement grants BRANDT the exclusive right to sell and market Verdesian’s patented Steric chemistry in the Turf and Ornamental and eastern U.S. ag markets under the BRANDT Reaction product line name. Read More
CropLife 100CropLife 100: The Colors Of Custom Application
December 5, 2014
Although many color spray rigs are in the yards of the nation’s top ag retailers, the majority of them still come in only a few shades. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Invests In Meridian Agriculture Distribution
December 4, 2014
Meridian will provide retailers with supplier-branded products and numerous opportunities to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Read More
CropLife 100CropLife 100: Entering A New Seed Era
December 4, 2014
The seed category has been re-vitalized during the past few years, and more good news (and varieties) are headed the industry’s way in 2015. Read More
CropLife 100CropLife 100: The Depressed State Of Fertilizer
December 3, 2014
Following downright giddy growth earlier this decade, fertilizer sales have fallen back down to earth the past two years. Read More

Latest News

Crop InputsNufarm Fills Regulatory VP Position
December 18, 2014
Nufarm announced today that Rob Schwehr has been promoted to the position of Vice President of Innovation & Regulatory Affairs for Nufarm Americas. Read More
Seed/BiotechReport: China Approves Viptera Corn, U.S. Officials Awa…
December 17, 2014
Chinese authorities have informed some agriculture industry officials the government has approved U.S. imports of a type of genetically modified corn developed by Syngenta. Read More
FertilizerMonty’s Plant Food Brings In New Sales Rep
December 16, 2014
Monty's Plant Food Company has hired Warren Kearns as its newest Sales Representative for the South Carolina area. Read More
EquipmentHagie Wins 2014 CropLife IRON Product Of The Year Award
December 15, 2014
The self-propelled sprayer maker has a hit on its hands with the new STS Series model. Read More
Syngenta
Seed/BiotechSyngenta Sees China Approving Contentious GMO Corn Soon
December 15, 2014
Syngenta will make an announcement when it receives official documentation from China that Agrisure Viptera corn, known as MIR 162, has been cleared for import. Read More
Crop InputsVerdesian Life Sciences Names Vice President Of Communi…
December 15, 2014
Amy Bugg will oversee the execution of all promotional strategies for the corporate brand and the complete product portfolio. Read More
StewardshipFarmers, Retailers Attend 4R Certification 4U Workshop
December 15, 2014
More than 160 farmers and ag retailer attended the “4R Certification 4U” workshop December 12 to learn more about the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship, water quality research in the area and cost-sharing opportunities. Read More
Matt Hopkins10 Best New Agriculture Apps For 2015
December 15, 2014
These new agriculture apps are certain to help ag professionals do their jobs more efficiently in 2015 and beyond. Read More
ManagementARA Learnings, Retail Buying Intentions: Welcome To Cro…
December 12, 2014
This informal video program puts news and events effecting retailers into context, and features Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj. Read More
Seed/BiotechMonsanto Herbicide-Tolerant Technology Closer To Commer…
December 12, 2014
The final EIS moves Monsanto one step closer to the introduction of Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton and Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans, paving the way to provide access to dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton. Read More
Seed/BiotechUSDA Issues Final Environmental Impact Statement On Her…
December 12, 2014
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is issuing a final environmental impact statement on varieties of cotton and soybeans that have been genetically engineered for resistance to several herbicides, including the one known as dicamba. Read More
CropLife 100CHS: Driving Momentum To Help Farmer-Owners Grow
December 11, 2014
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading farmer-owned cooperative and a global energy, grains and foods company, must capture new opportunities to Read More
LegislationARA Applauds CFATS Passage Prior To Holiday Adjournment
December 11, 2014
The streamlined bill provides a four-year authorization of the CFATS program and guidance to DHS on key issues of chemical facility security Read More
Seed/BiotechBayer CropScience’s ILeVO Approved By EPA
December 11, 2014
EPA has approved ILeVO, the only seed treatment that protects the root system against infections caused by the Sudden Death Syndrome fungus and has activity against dangerous nematodes. Read More
Biologicals in Emerging Markets Map.
Crop InputsBiocontrols Could Quadruple By 2025; Will Regulators Pl…
December 11, 2014
The European experience with GMOs offers caution — and a promise — for biologicals. Read More
Crop InputsBASF Donates $75,000 To Feeding America
December 10, 2014
The donation will support Feeding America’s National Produce Program, an initiative that helps with planning, transportation and logistics to ensure fresh produce deliveries to the 200 member food banks around the country. Read More
InsecticidesHow To Avoid Aphid Infestation In Winter Wheat
December 10, 2014
The best strategy for managing aphid infestations in winter wheat — and the potential yellow dwarf diseases that they transmit — is prevention, according to a South Dakota State University Plant Pathology field specialist. Read More
LegislationDufault Installed As New ARA Chair
December 10, 2014
Dave Dufault, Vice President and General Manager of J.R. Simplot Company's Retail Business, was installed as the 2015 Chairman of the Board for ARA on December 4. Read More