The USDA and the U.S. Department of the Interior at the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force Meeting this week announced a new partnership agreement to study the benefits of farmers' conservation practices on water quality.
The agencies' U.S. Geological Survey project is expected to quantify the benefits of voluntary agricultural practices at a watershed scale to improve nutrient reduction strategies.
"On a voluntary basis, the agricultural community has put extensive effort into the management of nutrients and reducing runoff into waterways. This collaboration will help evaluate the impact of farmers' conservation efforts on improving water quality," said Ann Mills, USDA's deputy undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment.
Mills said when hundreds of farms take action in one watershed, it can help prevent an algal bloom downstream or lessen the need for water treatment for nitrates.
Collaborative agency modeling
Under the agreement, the U.S. Geological Survey will use Natural Resources Conservation Service data in surface water quality models. The models track how rivers receive and transport nutrients from natural and human sources to downstream reservoirs and estuaries.
This information will help provide a more accurate picture of the conservation systems in the watershed that contribute to water quality improvement and will help inform voluntary conservation strategies.
"This agreement will allow NRCS and USGS to combine resource management capabilities with science, and will give us the information we need to prioritize the most effective conservation strategies so that we can improve the quality of streams throughout the Mississippi River Basin," said Lori Caramanian, DOI deputy assistant secretary for Water and Science.
NRCS and USGS will develop conservation intensity data sets that reflect the value of conservation actions, but do not reveal private information about individual farms, ranches or forests.
"Farmers invest heavily in conservation systems to improve water quality, and we want to aid their decisions with the best science and information available," Mills said.
The conservation intensity products developed through the agreement will provide a uniform representation of conservation activities for use in water quality assessments at local, regional, and national scales, USDA says.