This session focused on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Healthy Watersheds Initiative, including its conservation goals and related monitoring activities. Participants were Thomas Christensen and Wayne Honeycutt of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Washington; Michele Reba of the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Ranjith Udawatta of the University of Missouri, Columbia.
Thomas Christensen provided an overview of NRCS soil and water conservation programs relating to nutrient management and involving various kinds of monitoring in the Mississippi River basin. He noted that USDA is not a monitoring agency but needs monitoring systems and data to properly manage and support its various NRCS programs. The NRCS works with many partners in meeting its monitoring needs. He pointed out that erosion control programs on farm lands date from the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, whereas the first programs focused on water quality began in the 1980s. His points were (1) that the water quality programs are less mature than the programs that were designed to maintain soil productivity; and (2) programs that maintain soil productivity on fields do not necessarily improve water quality in adjacent water bodies.
In 2009 the NRCS established the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) to provide incentives for implementation of agricultural management practices that could improve water quality in vulnerable watersheds (USDA, 2014a). He emphasized that identifying vulner-
able land is a key scientific challenge. The NRCS adopted three approaches to assess the effectiveness of management practices financed and installed under the MRBI. The first is “edge-of-field” (EOF) monitoring by farmers, the second is intensive monitoring of selected watersheds under USDA’s Conservation Effectiveness Assessment Project (CEAP), and the third is a network of “paired watershed” studies (for more information on the CEAP, see USDA, 2014b). These paired watershed studies entail investigation of conservation practice effectiveness in a study watershed, and comparing results with observations from a nearby “control” watershed.
“Edge-of-field” monitoring may be defined as monitoring conducted at the field level to determine directly whether nutrient management practices are helping remove nutrient export from the field. Priority small watersheds within the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative were the first locations where NRCS offered voluntary cost-sharing assistance for the implementation of edge-of-field water quality monitoring to help assess the efficacy of conservation systems (Figures 2-1 and 2-2). NRCS can cost-share with producers on edge-of-field monitoring activities, but it needs partners to assist producers with managing monitoring stations and covering the producers’ share of the cost (for more background on edge-of-field monitoring within the MRBI, see Mills and Christensen, 2012, and Christensen and Honeycutt, 2013).
FIGURE 2-1 NRCS edge-of-field monitoring protocol and history.
SOURCE: Christensen and Honeycutt, 2013.
FIGURE 2-2 Edge-of-field monitoring and evaluation within the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative.
SOURCE: Christensen and Honeycutt, 2013.
One definition of the “paired watershed” approach is as follows:
Paired watershed field studies are used to evaluate watershed scale impacts of conservation practices. These are field studies designed to enable comparison of before-and-after monitoring data collected for similar watersheds in which a particular conservation practice is tested with one but not the other. Paired watershed studies involve assessment of the response of both a control watershed and an impact watershed before and after implementation of a conservation practice of interest. (King et al., 2008)
Several invited speakers through the course of the two-day workshop mentioned this paired watershed approach, and its value in helping understand and validate results from nutrient management activities (for more on the paired watershed concept, see also Clausen et al., 1996).
Thomas Christensen further explained that the watersheds selected for financing in the MRBI program are targeted for a variety of reasons. These include maximizing the benefits of conservation funding, producing significant environmental benefits in a short time period, avoiding
inefficiencies of random conservation practice implementation, and learning lessons about using conservation practices to more efficiently improve water quality. At the scale of individual farms, targeting conservation practices implies using the right practice, at the right landscape position, in the right amount, and at the right time. This type of targeting is known popularly as “precision conservation.” He noted that from 2010-2013, USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding was used to install conservation practices in the MRBI watersheds. He further explained that the CEAP, which is focused on evaluating conservation benefits, involves extensive water quality monitoring and modeling in five select MRBI watersheds. Results of the CEAP assessments indicated that targeted implementation of management practices enhanced conservation effectiveness by from 1.3 to 1.7 times for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment losses relative to previous untargeted implementations of the same practices. A broad lesson from the NRCS monitoring experience is that longer monitoring periods are needed, and clear, comprehensive guidance about monitoring protocols are important to obtain useful data about conservation practice performance.
Wayne Honeycutt of the NRCS focused a portion of his remarks on his agency’s work in edge-of-field (EOF) water quality monitoring. NRCS has established protocols for evaluating conservation effectiveness through EOF water quality monitoring and in paired watershed studies. Protocols for EOF monitoring include system installation protocols and data collection and evaluation protocols. He emphasized the importance of calibration and quantification in evaluating water quality models. NRCS experience with EOF monitoring has shown that it requires a long time period (e.g., minimum of three years) to show results, requires consistent application and protocols, and requires clear guidance for farmers.
He stated that paired watershed studies and edge-of-field monitoring provide useful data for models to evaluate the impacts and effectiveness of conservation practices on water quality at various scales. Scientists from USDA’s ARS (often working in collaboration with partners) have developed an impressive array of agricultural system and water quality models, including
- EPIC (Environmental Policy Integrated Climate);
- RZWQM (Root Zone Water Quality Model);
- APEX (Agricultural Policy and Environmental Extender); and
- SWAT (Soil and Water Assessment Tool).
These models operate across a variety of scales and, when calibrated properly using edge-of-field or paired watershed scale monitoring data, are able to evaluate a wide range of agricultural conservation practices
under dry, average, or wet climatic conditions. He stated that these models have not been calibrated for new agricultural technologies and require further refinements for greater accuracy, including better accounting of fertilizer and manure management effects on surface runoff water quality, tillage and fertilizer management impacts on drainage water quality, and impact of alternative drainage water management practices on water quality. He also discussed the importance of data quality assurance and reporting requirements.
Michele Reba of the USDA ARS office in Jonesboro, Arkansas, provided a state perspective on USDA conservation and water quality monitoring programs in Arkansas. Agriculture is important to the Arkansas economy, with rice, cotton, and soybeans as leading products. The state is the largest producer of rice in the United States, and ranks fourth among states in terms of irrigated agricultural acres. Arkansas has a statewide network for monitoring water quality and quantity, which assists the ARS in its studies of conservation practices. The ARS collaborates with various partners in these studies, especially Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas.
Arkansas has been a center of MRBI project activity. Michele Reba described seven ongoing monitoring areas. Sites have been established in these areas with plans to monitor them each for 5 to 6 years. In partnership with Arkansas State University, there are 10 fields with edge-of-field monitoring, five of which have paired control fields. Edge-of-field monitoring at these sites includes water flow velocity and depth, and for water quality, turbidity, suspended sediment, and nutrient concentrations. She emphasized the challenges that weather variability poses for interpreting results of data collection. Results have provided insight into the effectiveness of cover crops and various field-scale water management approaches. In addition, the data obtained have been used for model calibration.
Ranjith Udawatta of the University of Missouri-Columbia described MRBI and other conservation activities in Missouri, which are focused on erosion control, a particular challenge for the state. Missouri has approximately 105,000 farms, more than any of the nearby major agricultural states of the Midwest. The large amount of agricultural activity, combined with erosive soil types and relatively high precipitation rates, leads to excessive soil erosion and associated sediment and nutrient loadings to water bodies. He described field-scale conservation practice monitoring and assessment activities under way in Missouri. He discussed the challenges involved in collaborating with landowners, and providing appropriate and effective incentives to support their participation in edge-of-field monitoring activities.
This session examined federal and state agency monitoring of Mississippi River water quality. Due to the large amount of water flow and quality monitoring activity of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the Mississippi River and the basin, the session focused on USGS activities and partnerships. Participants in this session were Michael Woodside, Lori Sprague, and Dale Robertson of the USGS; Greg Jackson of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ); and Glenn Skuta of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
There is a long history of monitoring nutrient loadings and trends for the Mississippi River basin. A portion of this work has been conducted by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (for example, see Goolsby, 2000, which documents annual flux of nitrates from the Mississippi River basin to the Gulf of Mexico, 1950-1999). Much of this work also has been accomplished by scientists across the river basin and in the Mississippi River states, much of which are described in NRC (2008).
Michael Woodside of the USGS provided an overview of USGS monitoring activities in the Mississippi River basin. The USGS conducts long-term monitoring at 40 sites within the Mississippi River watershed. There are many additional monitoring sites which the USGS operates jointly with states. Water quality monitoring at this collection of sites includes real-time monitoring of nitrate at 40 locations. The USGS aggregates and interprets water quality data, and publishes annual National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA)1 and National Stream Quality Network (NASQAN)2 reports with water quality data and assessment summaries. He emphasized the importance of having information about site conditions (e.g., flow, ambient temperature, precipitation) corresponding to a particular water quality measurement. He discussed USGS efforts in real-time nitrate monitoring, and USGS collaborative efforts with USDA on water quality modeling.
1 The USGS NAWQA provides an understanding of water quality conditions; whether conditions are getting better or worse over time; and how natural features and human activities affect those conditions. For more information, see: https://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/.
2 The objectives and scope of the USGS NASQAN program have changed several times since its beginnings in 1973 to reflect changes in funding, technology, and societal priorities and needs. The latest design for NASQAN was implemented in October 2007. Under this design, the major objective of the NASQAN program is to report on concentrations and loads of selected constituents delivered by major rivers to the coastal waters of the United States, and select inland subbasins in priority river basins, to determine sources and relative yields of constituents within these basins. For more information, see: https://water.usgs.gov/nasqan/.
Lori Sprague of USGS presented a summary of USGS nitrate monitoring data in the Mississippi River for 1980-2010. She emphasized the importance of flow normalization, to account for inter-annual variability and remove the effects of streamflow on nitrate flux. The flow-normalized data reveal that there has been a 14 percent increase in nitrate flux to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River over the 30-year period, with greater increases in nitrate flux in the last decade of the period (Figure 2-3; see also USGS, 2014a). The Iowa River and the Illinois River provide the largest flow-normalized fluxes of nitrate to the Mississippi River. She noted that the number of NAWQA monitoring sites nationally has been reduced from 496 sites in Cycle 1 (1991-2001) to 100 sites in Cycle 3 (2013-present) due to budget reductions. This has resulted in reduced spatial coverage within the Mississippi River basin monitoring network. The USGS is working to obtain additional data via partnerships with states and other organizations. She noted further that future research efforts would include trend studies within the NAWQA program.
Dale Robertson of USGS provided an update on SPARROW (SPAtially Referenced Regression on Watershed Attributes) model and its application to the Mississippi River basin (see also USGS, 2014b). In the context of assessment and management of nutrients in runoff, typical goals of SPARROW modeling are: (1) determine P and N loading to various receiving
FIGURE 2-3 Flow-normalized nitrate flux changes of the Mississippi River and tributaries, 1980-2010.
SOURCE: Sprague et al., 2013 (based on data from Murphy et al., 2013).
waters over large spatial scales using monitoring data and landscape and land use; (2) determine the main contributing basins and subbasins; (3) determine main causes of high loads; and (4) provide information to states and regional organizations to support regional interpretation and guide local, more in-depth studies. SPARROW employs mass balance modeling and regression techniques to determine the relative influence of various sources. Various analyses have been performed with SPARROW for the Mississippi River basin, providing indications of the significant nutrient mass loading source areas within the basin. The database providing the foundation for these analyses was developed with 2002 data and encompasses numerous water quality station identification numbers, different agency codes, and nutrient source loading sites. He reported that the analyses of nutrient inputs to the Mississippi River with SPARROW have been refined, with improved data for model calibration (e.g., actual data rather than estimates for nitrogen and phosphorus inputs from municipal wastewater treatment plants). SPARROW results also present relative rankings of Mississippi River basin states of nutrient loads that ultimately are delivered to the northern Gulf of Mexico. He reported that SPARROW is being modified to make it easier to use for decision support analyses. SPARROW Mapper is being developed and will allow the user to select the area of interest for analysis via a map-based user interface. Further, new auxiliary decision support tools will enable users to select data for particular regions, examine scenarios, and illustrate results graphically. He also noted that current scientific understanding indicates that Gulf hypoxia results from both nitrogen and phosphorus. This represents a shift in thinking about these issues, as there was a longstanding view that phosphorus was the main cause of eutrophication in freshwater ecosystems, while nitrogen was the main problem downstream in saltwater ecosystems.3
Greg Jackson of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality presented a state perspective on monitoring for management of nutrient inputs to the Mississippi River. He described the state’s nutrient reduction strategies, which include development of numeric nutrient criteria, engaging partners and stakeholders, and implementing and monitoring nutrient reduction methods. He noted that the state is striving to be more proactive in its activities related to nutrient yields and monitoring. A particular focus of effort is the Delta Reduction Project, which involves a collaboration of MDEQ, USGS, and Mississippi State University. This project involves a treatment watershed with testing of various nutrient control methods, and
3 For a thorough discussion of the changing fluxes of nitrogen and phosphorus into the northern Gulf of Mexico, changes in N:P ratios, and changes in their respective effects on northern Gulf ecosystems, see US EPA, 2007.
a related control area. Reduction of phosphorus loadings is being achieved. He noted that an important, but perhaps little-known, challenge for the Delta region is depletion of available groundwater. Recovery and reuse of runoff is important for preservation of groundwater resources.
Glenn Skuta of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency described the wide range of partnership activities that MPCA has with USGS in regard to monitoring. The cooperative stream gaging network is valuable to the state in monitoring pollutants, especially nutrient discharges. Minnesota has established a Watershed Pollutant Load Monitoring Network. USGS monitoring resources are critical to this network. Minnesota has stepped in to support some USGS monitoring sites in danger of being abandoned due to federal budget cuts.
Following this session, the workshop hosted a luncheon talk by Elizabeth Hubertz from Washington University in St. Louis (summarized in Box 2-1).
Participants in this session were Joseph Pietrowski of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Michael Woodside of the U.S. Geological Survey; William Northey of the Iowa Department of Agriculture; Ken Brazil of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission; and Warren Goetsch of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Joseph Pietrowski of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided an overview of the activities of the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force (Task Force). The Task Force was established in 1997 and is composed of representatives from several federal agencies, and from all states along the Mississippi River corridor and Indiana and Ohio. The Task Force has issued two Action Plans, one in 2001 and a second in 2008 (see US EPA, 2001, 2008). He noted that the 2008 Action Plan reiterated goals from the 2001 document, and identified 11 specific action items. The action items included state-level nutrient reduction strategies, and complementary federal strategies aimed at supporting the state efforts. An assessment of progress on the Action Plan was conducted in 2013 (US EPA, 2013). One finding was that all participating states are on track to have nutrient management strategies by 2014. He also discussed the roles and importance of states in helping achieve nutrient reduction goals, and he noted that the states were being guided in large part by a memorandum issued in 2011 from then-acting EPA Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner that identified guiding principles for nutrient reduction (“the Stoner memo”; see US EPA, 2011). He discussed
Lunch Speaker Elizabeth Hubertz, Environmental Law Clinic Washington University in St. Louis
At lunch on Day 1, Elizabeth Hubertz provided her perspective on the current state of legal control of nutrient discharges to water bodies in the United States. She began by reminding the audience that the Clean Water Act is the basis for any legal action to control nutrient discharges, but noted that the CWA “doesn’t have much to say about nonpoint source pollution.” There is pressure being applied for action through the CWA via the citizen suit provisions of the law. She described the October 2013 decision in the case of Gulf Restoration Network vs. Lisa Jackson (former EPA Administrator). The suit was filed after the EPA denied a petition in 2011 from a coalition of Mississippi River environmental groups requesting the EPA to determine under the CWA that numeric nutrient criteria (NNC) are necessary to maintain quality in the waters of the states in the Mississippi River basin. In the October 2013 decision, the court concluded that the CWA requires the EPA to make a determination within six months as to whether NNC are necessary, and that the EPA has broad discretion to consider nonscientific factors in making that necessity finding. She also described a related case in Florida, which resulted in a court decision requiring EPA to develop NNC for the waters of Florida. The EPA developed draft NNC, in 2010, but then the State of Florida developed their own and EPA subsequently relented, and will allow the Florida NNC to have primacy. She discussed the status of the Total Maximum Daily Load nutrient allocations developed in 2010 for the Chesapeake Bay watershed by the seven states in the basin and the EPA. The TMDL was challenged by a coalition of interested parties, but the TMDL was upheld by the court in December 2012. Also in December 2012, EPA denied a petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council to request that nutrient removal be added to the secondary treatment requirements under the CWA. She concluded by describing a July 2013 decision in a lawsuit brought by the Iowa League of Cities against EPA, regarding guidance issued by the EPA to encourage nutrient removal in municipal wastewater treatment. The court sided with the Iowa League of Cities, concluding that EPA cannot issue guidance and treat such as de facto rulemaking.
many of the challenges associated with measuring progress toward nutrient reduction goals, and affirmed that achievement of these goals for the basin would require partners beyond federal and state agencies.
Michael Woodside of the U.S. Geological Survey described two important initiatives for water quality monitoring in the Mississippi River Basin: development of the Water Quality Portal by USGS and EPA, and the Task Force Monitoring Collaborative (for more information, see National Water Quality Monitoring Council, 20144). The Water Quality Portal will
provide a web-based tool that combines USGS and EPA monitoring data, and efforts are under way to include USDA water quality data, as well. The site will allow users to extract specific types of data via specification of up to seven identifiers. The Task Force Monitoring Collaborative has retrieved over 670,000 nutrient monitoring records collected by 48 agencies in the Mississippi River basin since 2000. Data from the EPA STORET and the USGS National Water information System databases are included.
William Northey of the Iowa Department of Agriculture explained that in the past three years the Task Force has seen a greater level of engagement among the Mississippi River basin states in a variety of nutrient reduction and monitoring activities. He noted that a common framework is needed to help guide state-level water quality monitoring activities. He discussed challenges involved in better nutrient management and reductions, and accurate monitoring and evaluation, and noted the long-term nature of addressing these issues. He described some studies that had been conducted by agronomic experts and other scientists at Iowa State University in developing the state’s nutrient strategy. He noted the need for an action-oriented approach to nutrient management and related monitoring activities. He emphasized the need for development of new tools (e.g., for determining and controlling optimal levels and timing of fertilizer applications). He noted that there is likely to be intense interest in monitoring in small watersheds, and he stressed the importance of recognizing differences across watersheds and how those differences affect outcomes. He also noted that there had been a 30 percent reduction in nitrogen flux reported from farm land by use of a cover crop.
Ken Brazil of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission described the collaborations now taking place among the Task Force members, and the action-oriented initiatives in the participating states. He emphasized the importance of using adaptive management to make use of what is being learned on a continuous basis. He also emphasized that different states and different regions within states have unique challenges with respect to nutrient management and monitoring. These include technical as well as cultural challenges. As he noted, different regions will engage with conservation programs in different ways, and he stressed the importance of flexibility in implementing conservation programs.
Warren Goetsch of the Illinois Department of Agriculture observed that more producers are becoming interested and engaged in nutrient management, but progress is slow as this represents a cultural change in agricultural practices. He expressed the view that as awareness of the impacts of nutrients becomes more widespread in the agricultural community, there will steadily be more producers engaged in better nutrient management practices. He also mentioned a program in the State of Illinois, “Keep it for the Crops (KIC),” which seeks to reduce nutrient
yields through adoption of “the 4 Rs of nutrient use: right sources, right rate, right time, and right place.5
Participants in this session were Timothy Hall of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, David Duhl of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Richard Raynie of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, and Glenn Skuta of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Timothy Hall of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources directed many of his comments to the background work and strategies within the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy. He noted that agriculture is the predominant land use in the state, comprising 92 percent of all land in Iowa. He reported that the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy was completed in May 2013. From the analyses that were conducted in preparation of the strategy, it became clear that inter-annual variations in precipitation are very important in governing nutrient mobilization and export.
David Duhl of the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation discussed monitoring of nutrients in the watersheds of the state. The statewide monitoring program has enabled identification of nutrient-impaired streams. He emphasized the importance of stakeholder engagement in the design of monitoring programs.
Richard Raynie of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) discussed the coordination among Louisiana state agencies on nutrient monitoring and management. CPRA interest in nutrients is in the context of ecosystem restoration, while the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is focused on and conducts the state water quality monitoring program. The state has developed watershed implementation plans for 50 watersheds, and these are monitored at relatively fine scale. The state also has developed a System Wide Assessment and Monitoring Program (SWAMP), which includes data sharing among various state agencies. He noted the challenge of scale—both spatial and temporal—in the monitoring programs of the state. He emphasized the importance of coordination of state and federal agency monitoring programs to leverage existing long-term monitoring networks and for consistency of measurements and data reporting. He also described Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan, which has a strong focus on sediment management and its implications for wetlands construction. With regard to nutrients, he noted that the planned
water diversions from the Mississippi River (intended for restoration purposes) had implications for nutrient levels and water quality.
Glenn Skuta of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency discussed some of the initiatives within the Minnesota state government aimed at improving water quality and monitoring, notably $12 million/year from a state sales tax (approved by state-wide referendum) that is intended to be devoted to water resource protection initiatives. The Minnesota surface water monitoring program includes a watershed pollutant load monitoring network, and monitoring of rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands. Much of the monitoring is conducted by local groups that follow MPCA protocols. The watershed monitoring program involves comprehensive monitoring of selected watersheds on a 10-year cycle. The first 10-year cycle will be completed in 2018.
Participants in this session were Jim Baumann (retired) of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Paul Davis (retired) of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Gregg Good of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Larry Taylor of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, and Peter Tennant of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.
The Mississippi River and many of its tributaries flow along the boundaries between states. Some degree of interstate collaboration among these states is needed to ensure consistency in implementation of numerous programs under the federal Clean Water Act. Jim Baumann (retired) from the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources described, for example, collaborative efforts of Wisconsin and Minnesota to develop consistent TMDLs for Lake Pepin. Consistent methods for water quality monitoring are especially important for waters shared by two or more states. Water quality standards used to evaluate water quality monitoring data require consistency across states in order to arrive at consistent assessments of impaired boundary waters.
There are several examples of interstate collaboration in monitoring and assessment in the Mississippi River basin. These include the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA), the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee (LMRCC), and more informal partnerships between states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Kentucky and Ohio.
Gregg Good from the State of Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and past state designee and participant in Upper Mississippi River Basin Association activities, provided an overview of the UMRBA.
The UMRBA represents the five states--Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin—in the upper Mississippi River basin. The UMRBA consists of gubernatorial representatives from the five states and, in the realm of water quality, seeks improved implementation and consistency of the Clean Water Act and better interstate coordination and collaboration in water quality and water quality monitoring. Mr. Good noted that UMRBA is staffed by five people in St. Paul, Minnesota. The UMRBA has a Water Quality Task Force and an Executive Committee. These groups meet four times each year and work to promote interstate collaboration and consistency of water quality assessments along the river. They collaboratively assess interstate watersheds (e.g., eight such watersheds in Illinois). They have issued reports on fish consumption advisories, biological indicators, nutrients, monitoring strategies, and assessment methods. In 2013 UMRBA developed a basin-wide monitoring strategy. A consistent water quality assessment methodology is in development. He also explained that the UMRBA uses monitoring procedures developed by the EPA Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP), plus assessment of submersed aquatic vegetation and some other protocols from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/USGS Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP), headquartered in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.6
Peter Tennant of the Ohio River Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) provided an overview of his organization, which is managed by commissioners representing eight states in the Ohio River Basin. ORSANCO is staffed by 22 people in Cincinnati, Ohio. The mission and authorities of ORSANCO are focused on water quality. ORSANCO monitors pollutants that degrade water quality, and works collaboratively with basin states in this effort. Examples of chemical monitoring activities include metals, organic compounds, bacteria, algae, nutrients, and dissolved oxygen. Nutrient and algae monitoring was begun in 1999. ORSANCO also monitors biological indicators, including fish populations and tissue and macroinvertebrates. Funding to support ORSANCO comes from a mixture of federal and state sources, including U.S. EPA funding under section 106 of the Clean Water Act. ORSANCO provides recommendations for states’ (Clean Water Act section) 303d lists for water bodies requiring TMDL assessments. He described ORSANCO’s efforts toward these recommendations as “95 percent there.”
Paul Davis (retired) of the Tennessee Department of Environment
6 LTRMP is a cooperative federal-state program (five states in the Upper Mississippi River Basin) that has been collecting physical, chemical, and biological data on the Upper Mississippi River using standardized protocols since the mid-1990s. For more information, see http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/ltrmp.html.
and Conservation described the activities of the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Commission, which represents six states in the Lower Mississippi River Basin and in which Mr. Davis has participated. Their primary mission is the restoration of natural resources in the Mississippi River floodplain, including habitat for fish and wildlife. The LMRCC Executive Committee is drawn from 12 natural resource conservation and environmental quality agencies in the six member states. LMRCC has no paid staff. Louisiana is the only member of LMRCC that has continuous water quality monitoring stations along the Mississippi River. In general, LMRCC does not have the funding or authority to address nutrient reductions in the Gulf of Mexico. The LMRCC has no water quality monitoring responsibilities or programs, nor does it have any such plans.
Larry Taylor of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection described water quality monitoring activities in Kentucky, and interstate collaboration efforts of Kentucky, especially with Tennessee. Kentucky has a watershed monitoring and management program that includes a 5-year rotation for focused monitoring. He emphasized that managing shared resources is needed along rivers for cross-border consistency. He described the collaborative engagement of Kentucky with LMRCC, ORSANCO, and USGS to monitor and evaluate major tributaries to the Ohio River.
Participants in this session were Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group in Ames, Iowa; Mark David of the University of Illinois; Matthew Helmers of Iowa State University; Douglas Schnoebelen of the University of Iowa; and Lori Sprague of the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise, Idaho.
Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group noted two important issues regarding scale and monitoring: scales at which harm is evident, and relevant management units. He stressed the importance of meaningful, science-based interpretation of monitoring data. He also expressed the view that land use management was the biggest missing piece in trying to attain sustained nutrient loading reductions and improved water quality. With regard to land management and nutrient control activities, he stated that “The nation does not deal with multiple pollutants in a strategic way.” He suggested focusing not on watersheds where challenges are the greatest (e.g., low landowner participation rates, or steep and isolated terrain), but rather on productive agricultural land that has the highest nitrogen loads.
Mark David of the University of Illinois noted that there was good understanding of nutrient and water quality trends “directionally,” but that better scientific information was required at the watershed scale. He noted that a key limitation in conducting studies at watershed scale is access to private land and participation by landowners. He further noted that even when studies can be conducted at the watershed scale, there is a challenge of obtaining a pre-development or pre-activity baseline record. He also discussed the importance of individual landowners’ perceptions of nutrients and water quality, wondering how to better engage those parties who may not perceive any issues or problems regarding water quality. He noted a major issue is how to help pay, and/or regulate, private landowners in order to achieve watershed-scale response. He noted that landowners have installed more tile drainage and put more land into production in the last few years (presumably because of expiration of conservation easements and rising prices for commodity crops, such as corn).
Matthew Helmers of Iowa State University discussed the importance of tracking practices on the land. He noted that there has been useful work done in this regard with remote sensing, but emphasized that detailed data about agricultural practices are needed (e.g., data on rate, locations, and timing of nutrient application).
Douglas Schnoebelen of the University of Iowa discussed the importance of using numerical modeling to help understand riverine processes at different scales. He emphasized the importance of integration of models designed for different scales in order to understand watershed scale processes and effects.
Lori Sprague of the U.S. Geological Survey expressed the view that there are good examples for monitoring at different scales and across state boundaries. She cited the monitoring of the Susquehanna River as part of the Chesapeake Bay Project as a notable example. This monitoring effort involves multiple states and multiple government agencies, but is conducted in a coordinated manner and with consistent methods. She discussed ongoing challenges associated with interpreting the causes of trends in water quality data for nutrients and other contaminants, and that more ancillary data on environmental conditions and flows are needed to interpret trends in water quality data. She also noted the complications involved in determining sources and relative values of nutrient inputs, explaining that this is not simply a matter of subtracting municipal and industrial loads (point sources, with relatively accurate and reliable data) from total loads in rivers, then attributing the rest to agriculture.
Participants in this session were Dennis Busch of the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Platteville, David Gustafson of Monsanto, Maria Lemke of The Nature Conservancy, Jerry Hatfield of the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (Ames, Iowa), Richard Warner of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (Alton, Illinois) and the University of Illinois, and Roger Wolf of the Iowa Soybean Association.
Dennis Busch of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville discussed his work in paired-watershed research. He discussed the importance of cost factors in edge-of-field monitoring, as well as the need to identify and minimize barriers to water quality monitoring. He discussed the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. The CIG program is voluntary and intended to stimulate development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies, while leveraging federal investment in environmental enhancement and protection, and in conjunction with agricultural production (USDA, 2014c). He also mentioned that he had been conducting some of his work at UW-Platteville in collaboration with the Great Lakes Regional Water Program (GLRWP, 2014).
David Gustafson (Monsanto) and Maria Lemke (The Nature Conservancy) jointly discussed some of their work in the Mississippi River basin. They discussed the role of cover crops as transformative practices. They, too, discussed paired-watershed projects. They also described the concept of using wetlands to help reduce nutrients in runoff in areas of tiled drainage. David Gustafson mentioned the availability of innovation grants through the Conservation Technology Information Center of West Lafayette, Indiana (CTIC, 2014). Maria Lemke mentioned “bundling” of conservation and nutrient reduction practices to increase incentives to landowners. She described studies and steps toward a water fund to pay for reducing nitrogen loading from a watershed that is 90 percent agricultural and is a source of drinking water for the city of Bloomington, Illinois. Since the watershed is largely tiled, results could be transferred to other tiled watersheds.
Jerry Hatfield of the USDA-ARS Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment discussed some of his work on farming practices and water quality monitoring in Walnut Creek and the South Fork of the Iowa River. He discussed some of the implications for water balance of changes in crop types. He also talked about the prospects of precision cropping practices, and the implications for production and water quality of different soil types. He said that he used county-level fertilizer sales to identify a “tipping point” for nitrogen loading of streams. The tipping point occurs
when land use shifts from predominantly small grains and hay to row crops (corn and soybeans). Nitrogen fertilizer use tracks the shift. He also reported success in reducing nitrate from tile-drained watershed (1,200-acre subbasin of N Walnut Creek, Iowa River drainage) that resulted from “precision conservation”—wet filter strips and other practices targeted to 10 percent of the watershed.
Richard Warner of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center discussed land grant colleges along the river and in the basin, and the prospects for them to help connect community colleges and support environmental education. He mentioned two new efforts in which his organization is involved: Great Lakes-Gulf virtual observatory (which includes mayors and others looking for practical information about water quality), and the Great Rivers Ecological Observatory Network (which is focusing on real-time water and environmental monitoring).7 He also noted exciting prospects for employing sensors to improve monitoring networks and data collection.
Roger Wolf of the Iowa Soybean Association discussed nutrient management and water quality issues in Iowa’s Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, both of which drain into and through the city of Des Moines. He discussed activities of Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance in Iowa, and the Iowa Soybean Association. In his comments regarding water quality monitoring, Roger described the importance of engaging the watershed community in monitoring, and noted that farmers want good information about water quality conditions. He noted the value of edge-of-field monitoring and its empowering effect on landowners, but he also noted that this practice illustrates the challenges on detecting clear water quality responses to changes in land use practices or cropping types. He emphasized the importance and prospects of giving farmers a scientifically credible voice in playing leadership roles in water quality management. He noted that Iowa soybean growers value their association because it has its own water analysis lab and works with environmental partners. This is an important point because it reiterates points other speakers made that growers want access to data and value cooperation over confrontation.
A final set of comments was provided by David DeGues of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), who provided an overview of a range of soil and water conservation projects in which TNC has engaged agricultural producers and other partners. He reported that TNC is in the early stages of watershed-scale projects, including paired watershed projects, and always is looking for partners. He noted that a continuing challenge is how to get enough landowners involved in order to conduct watershed-
7 For more information on this network, see http://www.ngrrec.org/News-Stories/WaltonGrant3_14/.
scale projects. An important element is “selling” projects to landowners; in some respects, “sales training” is needed for conservation officers. In discussing potential involvement with landowners, it is important to look at the obstacles from the perspective of the producer. He cited the REACH (Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat) project in Mississippi as a good example of how to engage producers. REACH involves a network of cooperative farms in Mississippi; the program provides coordination and support to document the benefits of conservation efforts. In regard to nutrient control, he expressed the view that it is important to focus on water management. He stated that improved water management in agricultural production will “pull the nutrients along.”
This second day of the workshop also featured a luncheon talk delivered by Tony Thompson of Willow Lake Farm in Windom, Minnesota, summarized in Box 2-2.
The workshop concluded with an open forum involving all participants at the workshop, with the discussion led by a panel comprised of the NRC committee members. The discussion opened with a review by the committee chairman David Dzombak of key messages from presentations at the workshop, including important needs in monitoring,
Lunch Speaker Tony Thompson, Willow Lake Farm Windom, Minnesota
The lunch speaker on Day 2 was Tony Thompson, a Minnesota farmer with a strong interest in soil and water conservation who has participated in a number of conservation projects with the University of Minnesota. His farm encompasses 3,000 acres and 15 separate fields in which he grows corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. He also operates 13 wood-chip bioreactors for production of biofuels. Tony described farming in southern Minnesota as limited by water and temperature. He has particular concern about tillage and drainage practices. He described himself as a ridge till farmer who is very careful with fertilizer application. He participated in a controlled drainage pilot project that changed his drainage practices. He expressed his strong belief in careful use of tillage and drainage to “soften the touch of agriculture.” He has a keen interest in the early history of farming and the pre-settlement landscape of Windom, Minnesota, is a proponent of agro-ecology, and works with and mentors young farmers and others who are considering careers in agriculture. He sees in these young people a strong interest in advancing the evolving culture of agriculture, which gives him optimism about the future of conservation in agriculture.
modeling, coordination, and public engagement for improved understanding of water quality conditions in the Mississippi River basin. Discussion ensued on these topics, resulting in expansion and refinement of the committee’s list of key messages and priorities, which are outlined in the following section.