By Lynn Betts
In a "hotspot" of nitrate loading in water draining from agricultural land, farmers and conservationists closest to the issue are convinced their science-based, cooperative approach is the best pathway to better water quality.
Farmers in the Boone River Watershed in Iowa, one of 640 selected watersheds across 13 states included in the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), are receiving incentives to use practices that reduce the amount of nutrients in water leaving their farms. They get special EQIP and other USDA conservation program payments to use cover crops, nutrient management, no-till and strip till, bioreactors, and other practices intended to cut nitrate losses from the farm.
But there's more to the initiative than offering bonus payments. There's an emphasis on monitoring water quality, with a real effort to ensure the money both farmers and USDA are spending on improvements are having the intended effects. For instance, a three-tiered monitoring and assessment approach evaluates water quality at edges of fields, in streams, and over the entire watershed.
Monitoring since 2007
"Farm and environmental groups started working together for better water here about ten years ago," says Eileen Bader, a staffer for The Nature Conservancy in the Boone River Watershed since 2009. "Farmers in the watershed wanted to know what the numbers were, how much nitrogen was in the water. At that time, there was only one site collecting water samples and water quality data. That led to the Iowa Soybean Association and TNC partnering in 2007 to get baseline water information every two weeks from April through August from all 30 sub-watersheds in the Boone River watershed, and the Iowa Soybean Association has continued that sampling to this day. That amounts to more than 2,000 samples a year."
Some call the Boone the most studied watershed in the country. It was identified by the U.S. Geologic Survey as a stream with high nitrate loads early on, and TNC chose it as a priority stream for conservation action more than ten years ago. The monitoring in the past five years followed an ecological assessment of the entire watershed by TNC in 2001, and coincided with a TNC Conservation Action Plan that identified nutrient loading, altered hydrology, and habitat loss as top priorities for watershed work in 2008. Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and NRCS have also been involved in studies including a rapid watershed assessment and nutrient loss modeling.
A partnership model
All the studies and all the monitoring is helping farmers as well as conservationists learn firsthand how well the practices are working -- that's part of the MRBI emphasis on monitoring and partnering to make measurable improvements in water quality.
As major partners in the Boone River project, both the ISA and TNC have contributed staff to the project. The project proposal showed ISA would contribute nearly $2 million for monitoring and other assistance, while TNC would contribute up to $300,000. Another partner, Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance, offered up to $300,000 in staff time and other assistance for monitoring. Other partners, including conservation districts and the Iowa Department of Agriculture, offered assistance as well.
While it will take much more time to make significant progress overall in cutting nutrient levels in the Boone River or the Mississippi River, the monitoring helps focus on hotspots and practices that do the most to cut nitrogen losses and improve profitability.
Both TNC and ISA believe the MRBI partnership approach, based on monitoring and adopting and adapting practices as they are proven to work, is a model that works and should be used in water quality projects in the future.
"We both appreciate and embrace information, data and applied science which informs where we do our work, and the types of strategies we employ to work with farmers on their land," says Roger Wolf of the Iowa Soybean Association.
MRBI leverages funds
The Mississippi River, America's longest at 2,300 miles, has the second-largest watershed in the world. Rolled out by NRCS in 2009, the Mississippi River Basin Initiative works through partnerships to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading in focused watershed projects.
The MRBI leverages NRCS funds through USDA's Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, granting EQIP, CSP, and WHIP funds to watersheds that can bring local and state government funds as well as private funds or staff to the table. The initiative also commits funds from the Wetlands Restoration and Enhancement Program, to restore wetlands that also reduce nutrient losses into streams.
The NRCS has now invested about $289 million, including $59 million in 2013, to the MRBI, focusing on 640 small watersheds in ten states along the main stem of the Mississippi River, as well as in Ohio, Indiana, and South Dakota.
TNC mission might surprise you
If you think The Nature Conservancy is an environmental organization interested only in protecting natural environments at the expense of agriculture, read on. Dave DeGeus, a south-central Iowa farmer and the sustainable agriculture lead for TNC's Great Rivers Partnership, says just the opposite is true. "What we do is work in partnerships that help local people craft solutions to national problems, and we're interested in helping farmers increase productivity and avoid regulation," DeGeus says.
The Nature Conservancy, the largest non-profit environmental organization in the U.S. with more than a million members and 550 staff scientists, has spent millions of dollars in Iowa alone in water quality projects. It put up the salary and other funding for TNC freshwater specialist Eileen Bader to work full time with farmers in the Boone River project to develop a model that will work in other areas to improve farmland and rivers alike, for instance. TNC staff are also working with farmers in similar projects in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
"While TNC works through private donations to preserve vital habitats for animals and plants in all 50 states and 35 countries all over the world, our work is expanding on rivers of the United States," DeGeus says. "Farmers probably don't know much about us or our goals unless we're involved in a local project, and then they see we have mutual goals," he adds.