Northeast-Midwest Institute Releases Report on Conservation Effectiveness in Watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River Basin

June 24, 2019

Washington, D.C. – A report released today by the Northeast-Midwest Institute assesses the implementation of a federally funded conservation program, with a particular concentration on its potential to improve water quality, focusing on a set of locations across the Upper Mississippi River Basin. This study will prove to be a valuable guide for forging a more robust conservation regime in the region and the rest of the United States.

According to Dr. Sridhar Vedachalam, Director, Safe Drinking Water Research and Policy Program at the Institute and lead author of the report, “Our nation’s rivers experience poor water quality due to the excess use of fertilizers and inadequate soil and manure management practices at farms across the country. Conservation addresses this issue at the source by engaging with our farmers, local communities, corporations, and anyone who cares about plentiful food, clean water, and a safe environment. Contrary to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s assertion, climate change is a clear and present danger to water quality, and this report leaves no doubt that in the absence of any proactive measures, water quality in our rivers is likely to worsen in the coming years.”

The report analyzes the implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in six watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River Basin: Middle Cedar River in Iowa; Upper Macoupin Creek and Otter Lake in Illinois; the State of Minnesota with a special emphasis on Middle Cannon River; and Baraboo River and Oconomowoc River in Wisconsin. An assessment of these six projects confirms the vital role of federal funding in initiating or strengthening these collaborations across various sectors from state and local governments to educational institutions, agri-businesses, and environmental organizations.

Highlighting the study’s findings are the results of watershed modeling of projected changes in phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment in the future after incorporating impacts due to climate change. Using the EPA-designed Hydrologic and Water Quality System (HAWQS), the report found that the contaminants evaluated in the study – phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment – are projected to increase consistently in certain watersheds, while others show an oscillating pattern. The RCPP projects evaluated in this report show statistically significant but low-impact reductions in contaminant pollution across the watersheds. RCPP projects, as currently implemented, generally reduce pollution from phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment by approximately 3-6% across the watershed. A 10- fold expansion of the current conservation adoption in the watersheds will result in a 17- 27% reduction, while full implementation of conservation on all available farmland will bring a 55-66% reduction in contaminant loading.

The Mississippi River Basin is the largest watershed in the United States, draining approximately 40% of the land area in the lower 48 states. Agriculture is the dominant industry in the Basin, impacting land-use and water quality. Heavy use of fertilizers and manure on agricultural fields has substantially contributed to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus across the Basin, resulting in algal blooms, contaminated drinking water, and “dead zones” in open waters. A focus on addressing the problem at the source has led the federal government to invest significantly in conservation programs through farmer education, outreach, and cost sharing of practices that aim to improve soil health and water quality. RCPP is designed to bring together upstream farmers and downstream stakeholders such as cities, water and wastewater utilities, and other watershed preservation groups.

The RCPP projects studied in this report employed a variety of conservation practices, although a few dominated. Planting cover crops during the off-season is an especially popular practice, even though it is less effective than other edge-of-field practices such as filter strips and bioreactors. Filter strips, nutrient management, and strip till/no till are other commonly employed conservation practices. Water quality monitoring is an important element of RCPP projects, and one that sets it apart from other historical conservation efforts. The inclusion of downstream stakeholders elevated the role of monitoring as well as its scope. However, the lack of a standardized water quality monitoring protocol resulted in instances where sparse monitoring frequency provided no meaningful data.

Each RCPP project also contains one or more unique elements that make the project stand apart and mark it for success. Examples of such elements include leveraging RCPP funding with state regulatory programs or local industry support, implementing outreach initiatives to involve non-traditional farmers, formulating a comprehensive water monitoring program, and focusing on improving each farm rather than just improving the watershed as a whole.

The Farm Bill has been an effective vehicle for undertaking critical conservation efforts by bringing together stakeholders with varying interests. However, the funding allocated for conservation is not enough to meet the scale and severity of the water quality challenge facing the Mississippi River Basin and the nation at large. Additional funding for source water protection in the 2018 Farm Bill was an important step toward enhancing conservation efforts, but this study identifies several policy lacunae that need to be addressed at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure productive lands and high quality water in the region that feeds and powers America for many years to come.

Dr. Michael Goff, President and CEO of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, emphasized the importance of the new study’s findings for conservation policy, stating “This research makes it clear that increased federal and state funding for conservation to ensure water quality is both essential and urgent. At the same time, it is imperative that every dollar spent on conservation must be used as effectively as possible in order to achieve real progress protecting our water sources.”

This study also gives rise to a number of further policy implications, applicable from the federal to the local levels. The implications include the necessity of prioritizing high- efficiency practices, including financial support for monitoring standards in future RCPP projects, minimizing restrictions on monetary transfers between various conservation funds, giving preference to long-term viability in the assessment of future RCPP projects, and incorporating the role of climate change in all the NRCS-administered conservation programs, among others.

“RCPP is growing into an essential tool in the effort to encourage public and private focus on the landscape. The program has played a significant role in our ability to invest in the watershed,” said Michael Kuntz, Utilities Environmental Manager at the City of Cedar Rapids (IA) and project manager for one of the RCPP projects evaluated in this report. Kuntz added, “Results in our watershed echo the report’s recommendation for exponential expansion of all conservation practices on the agricultural landscape. We could not agree more and we encourage continued focus on the program.”

The report was supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation and is available here.

For more information, contact: Eric Heath, Senior Policy Counsel for the Mississippi River Basin Program at the Northeast-Midwest Institute.