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Conservation work on Louisiana rice farm sends cleaner water to Gulf

By Holly Martien

Gulf of Mexico water comparison

The water that leaves Christian Richard’s farm (left) is much clearer than when it arrives via a nearby river. While clear water doesn’t mean the water is free of nutrients, it is an indicator of water in a better condition.

Christian Richard farms rice, soybean and crawfish in Vermillion Parish, La.

Christian Richard farms rice, soybean and crawfish in Vermillion Parish, La.

GOMI Video
NRCS released a new report that shows farmers have significantly reduced the loss of sediment and nutrients from farm fields through voluntary conservation work in the lower Mississippi River basin. Read more.

NRCS released a new report that shows farmers have significantly reduced the loss of sediment and nutrients from farm fields through voluntary conservation work in the lower Mississippi River basin. Read more.

When you visit Christian Richard’s rice farm in Vermilion Parish, La., he is quick to note that his family farm operates with conservation in mind.

“Rice farmers are the ultimate conservationists,” he said. “We take surface water, put it back on a rice field and let the rice field filter out some of the sediments and nutrients.”

“Then we release the water out of the field through grade stabilization structures, leading to water leaving the field as clean as possible,” the rice, soybean and crawfish farmer added. “It is crystal clear.”

When USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced the Gulf of Mexico Initiative, or GoMI, which focuses conservation efforts on acres that could have the most impact in water quality in the Gulf, Richard said he was quick to seize the opportunity.

“We are having a direct impact on what we are doing from my farm to the Gulf,” he said of his land, which straddles Bayou Grand Marais, eventually sending its water to Mermentau River and then the Gulf.

The lower Mermentau River watershed is one of seven watersheds in the initiative and one of two in Louisiana. Since 2012, this initiative has invested more than $4.3 million in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and placed conservation on more than 36,000 acres.

The health of the Gulf and coastal waterways is threatened by sediment, nutrients and other pollutants from urban and rural sources. Runoff from rice fields, sugarcane and pasturelands adds nutrient-rich sediments to surface water, affecting water quality.

With technical and financial assistance through GoMI, Richard has been able to manage and treat this runoff from his fields. His conservation work includes:

• Managing nutrients: Ensures he uses the right amount of nutrients at the right time and in the right place;
• Leveling the land: Makes it more efficient to put water on and off crops;
• Stabilizing vulnerable ground: Uses structures to hold soil in place;
• Installing more efficient irrigation: Uses water efficiently and allows surface water to be recycled; and
• Reduced tillage: Reduces erosion and improves soil health.
So, how does this help the Gulf?

First, this work minimizes erosion of soil. By not tilling, stabilizing weak spots, and leveling the land, soil stays in place. When soil erodes, it can impair waterways. Plus, when soil particles erode, they are likely to tow nutrients, like phosphorous, with them.

Next, this conservation work moves water efficiently on his farm. Richard uses surface water from the nearby bayou to flood his rice fields during the growing season, and then, before harvest, the rice fields are drained.

“We are able to pick up surface water — muddy water — that typically runs off of fields that have been tilled multiple times,” he said. “We are actually picking up other farms’ sediment, nutrients and runoff, and we are putting it on our fields.” When the water leaves his farm, it’s “crystal clear” as Richard puts it.

“While clear water doesn’t necessarily mean the water is clean or free of nutrients, it’s a good indicator that the water is leaving Richard’s farm in a much cleaner condition,” NRCS District Conservationist Mike Perry said.

Farmers across the Gulf are doing work similar to Richard’s. Through the initiative, NRCS implements conservation work in priority watersheds, like the Mermentau River. The Mermentau was selected because of the large amount of agriculture in the watershed – about 31,000 acres of cropland, 4,000 acres of pasture, 1,000 acres of forestland and 1,000 acres of urban land.

Producers interested in technical and financial assistance to implement conservation should contact their local service center.