NEMWI Hosts Briefing on New Study Examining Methods of Improving Conservation Efficiency

On July 23, 2019, the Northeast-Midwest Institute hosted a briefing on improving the efficiency of conservation programs, recent developments in conservation efforts stemming from the 2018 Farm Bill, and remaining gaps in conservation funding. The briefing was based on a new study released by the Northeast-Midwest Institute last month that analyzes the implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in six watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Dr. Sri Vedachalam, Director of Water at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, and author of the study started the briefing with a detailed explanation of the study’s key findings. He emphasized the ongoing problem of nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms and discussed how conservation can help tackle these problems. Although there are still open questions about the full benefits of conservation like the extent of nutrient pollution mitigation and the actual impact of voluntary programs, Dr. Vedachalam stated that RCPP would allow a structure of collaborative engagement where monitoring is emphasized. The RCPP projects as currently implemented reduce the pollution from phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment by 3-6% across the watershed. Dr. Vedachalam also highlighted the a number of policy implications including: the need to expand conservation funding, the importance of incorporating climate change projections into modeling, the vital role of state efforts to complement federal efforts, and the significance of enabling the transfer of funds between conservation programs, among others.

Adam Tarr, Senior Professional Staff at the Senate Agriculture Committee, highlighted a number of aspects of the 2018 Farm Bill. While he noted that more certainly must be done in regards to increasing funding levels across the board, he did emphasize the significance of the latest Farm Bill not cutting overall conservation funding and even increasing certain programs. One of the programs that received a big funding increase was the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Mr. Tarr also discussed additional Farm Bill changes, like the new emphasis on source water protection. However, Mr. Tarr additionally emphasized the need for improving measurements of the impacts of conservation programs.

Aviva Glaser from the National Wildlife Federation highlighted the current “serious water quality crisis” resulting from agricultural non-point source pollution. Ms. Glaser detailed important steps that have been taken in the latest Farm Bill to help improve the situation, like the new incentives for cover crops and the source water protection provisions. However, She also noted that there is a great need for an increase in overall conservation funding. She also emphasized the need for creative thinking when implementing new projects that ensure conservation and water quality.

Adam Carpenter, Manager of the Energy and Environmental Policy at the American Water Works Association (AWWA), discussed his organization’s efforts regarding source water protection and conservation. AWWA’s initiatives include building awareness across the water sector and incorporating source water protection across programs. He highlighted the 2018 Farm Bill’s focus on source water protection, which includes a 10% allocation of conservation funding specifically for source water protection. Mr. Carpenter added, however, that the Farm Bill still does not focus enough on source water protection in light of its significance as a policy issue.  Additionally, he emphasized the importance of educating and encouraging sectors to promote conservation programs like the RCPP.

A full audio recording of the briefing is available here.

Slides from the presentations at the briefing are available