Wednesday, October 10, 2012

USDA Provides Partner Updates on Two Key Mississippi River Basin Initiatives

2012 MRBI Watershed
Focus Areas (click to enlarge)
On October 9, staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service ("NRCS") provided updates to more than two dozen partners on two key programs impacting agricultural sustainability and water quality in the Mississippi River Basin: one on increasing the successful adoption of agricultural drainage water management for conservation benefits; and a second on the status of the agency's Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative or "MRBI" (here are NRCS's drainage water management project web site and MRBI web site). Speakers presented recent information regarding both NRCS projects, stressing (for the drainage initiative) program outreach and the significant increase in the number of on-the-ground projects in the planning and implementation phases and (for the MRBI) past project milestones, and an increased focus on measuring and tracking project outcomes and successes going into the future.

To view a PDF file of the drainage water management adoption PowerPoint presentation click here.  And for a PDF file of the full MRBI update PowerPoint presentation click here.  An outline of each update meeting, including speakers and topics, is available on the respective drainage water management agenda and MRBI agenda.

Drainage Water Management
A June 2010 NRCS Conservation Effects Assessment Project (or "CEAP") Report, entitled “Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Upper Mississippi River Basin,” documented progress made in reducing sediment, nutrient and pesticide losses from farmland through the implementation of a variety of conservation practices, while also stressing that additional conservation treatment (primarily a more complete and consistent use of nutrient management) is needed to achieve additional, measurable environmental outcomes. Important in achieving nutrient management is the greater management of water flow from agricultural tile drainage, where concentrations of nitrogen (primarily as nitrate) are often greater than in surface field runoff. In large part due to those CEAP report findings, NRCS launched the drainage water management project to foster greater voluntary adoption of the management of agricultural drainage water practices by producers, especially in the Upper Mississippi River Basin, while decreasing the loading of nitrogen to streams.

Previous drainage water project updates and discussions focused on the results of a suite of pilot projects across five Midwestern states (Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio). The Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition-sponsored projects were funded under the NRCS Conservation Innovative Grants (CIG) program. NRCS concluded based on the CIG report findings that "very substantial environmental impacts" can be realized (including reductions in nitrate outflow through utilization of drainage water management from 20 to 60%), with "negligible impacts on yield."

MRBI is designed to bring together a variety of stakeholders within the Mississippi River Basin to voluntarily implement conservation practices that avoid, control, and trap nutrient runoff in watersheds where high nutrient loading is particularly problematic. The conservation measures put into place also frequently improve wildlife habitat, and can often have the benefit of improving agricultural productivity. Through the MRBI, NRCS works with conservation partners and agricultural producers in a 13-state Initiative area to address nutrient loading to the Mississippi River Basin. Monitoring the effectiveness of the targeted efforts is seen as key to measuring the Initiative's success and assessing the need for refinement of the Initiative.  Through Fiscal Year 2012, there have been 123 MRBI partner agreements covering 640 "twelve digit HUC watersheds," and targeting over 577,000 acres; all supported by nearly $222 million in Farm Bill program funding.

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