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Focus on water quality in Mississippi River basin having impact

Modeling, monitoring shows benefits of conservation

Ibis in Louisiana

Ibis feed in a rice field in the Mississippi River basin in Louisiana.

MRBI YouTube Image

Watch the video on how MRBI benefits producers.

In just four years, farmers in the Mississippi River basin will have implemented conservation practices on more than 880,000 acres to improve water quality through one targeted initiative.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has dedicated more than $341 million targeted at 640 small priority watersheds since 2010, and thousands of farmers have stepped forward to improve water quality through conservation work on their lands.

“We’ve made huge investments in the basin using a collaborative approach,” said NRCS Chief Jason Weller. “By working in partnership with producers, we’re addressing water quality while keeping their lands successfully producing the food and fiber our nation needs. ”

NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help farmers decrease the loss of nutrients, like nitrogen, phosphorous and animal manure, from flowing into waterways.

Through the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, or MRBI, systems of conservation practices are projected to be implemented on 880,000 acres by the end of this year. Conservation practices commonly used in this initiative include nutrient management, conservation tillage, cover crops, wetland restoration and tailwater recovery systems.

Several Farm Bill programs support MRBI, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program.

“Nutrients that lead to water quality issues have many sources,” Weller said. “However, when one producer takes a proactive step to minimize the loss of nutrients and sediment, it’s a small – but important – step in sending cleaner water downstream. Imagine the benefits when that producer’s neighbors also join in, taking conservation action to the landscape or watershed level.”

Conservation works. NRCS’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project modeling, or CEAP, has shown that conservation systems on cropland in the basin keep soil and nutrients on the land:

• Conservation on cropland prevents an estimated 215 million tons of sediment, 2.7 billion pounds of nitrogen and 523 million pounds of phosphorus from leaving fields each year. These figures translate to a 55 percent, 34 percent and 46 percent reduction in sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus edge-of-field losses, respectively, compared to what would have been lost if no conservation practices were in place.

• Similarly, conservation has resulted in an estimated 17 percent reduction in nitrogen and 12 percent reduction in phosphorus entering the Gulf of Mexico annually. An additional reduction of 15 percent of nitrogen and 12 percent of phosphorus can be achieved by implementing or improving conservation systems on all cropland in the basin that has not adequately addressed nutrient loss.

Read NRCS’ reports on different segments of the basin, including the upper Mississippi River, Missouri River, Ohio-Tennessee rivers and Arkansas-Red-White rivers. A CEAP report on the lower Mississippi River will be released later this summer.

CEAP models also provide evidence that directing assistance to watersheds in the greatest need and focusing on improving water quality achieves greater results than non-targeted approaches to conservation. MRBI has enhanced the per-acre benefit of conservation by about 1.5 times for sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus losses, compared with non-targeted efforts.

NRCS is also increasing investments in edge-of-field monitoring systems with $1.8 million devoted to establishing or enhancing 12 monitoring stations in MRBI watersheds by October 2013. Results from the monitoring data will allow NRCS and farmers to plan more effective and efficient conservation systems.

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