Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New Report Recommends Areas of Improvement for USDA Mississippi River Water Quality Initiative

Fiscal Year 2012 Mississippi River
Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative
Priority Watersheds (click to enlarge)
The World Resources Institute (WRI) released a working paper on January 7 entitled “Improving Water Quality: A Review of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) To Target U.S. Farm Conservation Funds,” in which WRI reviewed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), seeking to determine the extent to which the MRBI is achieving its goal of realizing measurable improvements in water quality. Based upon its analysis, WRI identified twelve "specific recommendations for MRBI that may assist NRCS and its project partners in achieving measurable improvements in landscape-scale water quality outcomes."

First established in 2009, the MRBI is a 13-state Initiative that (according to the NRCS Initiative web site) designed "to implement voluntary conservation practices that improve water quality, restore wetlands, enhance wildlife habitat and sustain agricultural profitability in the Mississippi River Basin," building "on the cooperative work of NRCS and its conservation partners in the basin," and offering "agricultural producers in priority watersheds the opportunity for voluntary technical and financial assistance."

The WRI recommendations include:

In the area of project management (i.e., reporting, stakeholder participation and adaptive management)
  1. Clarifying which stakeholders are involved in what aspects of MRBI;
  2. Enabling agricultural producers and rural landowners to participate in the development of MRBI and its projects;
  3. Prioritizing project awards that leverage and formalize significant resources from non-USDA sources;
  4. Leading "by example" and writing "clear and SMART-Q" ("specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, time-bound, and quantitative") goal statements for MRBI that aim to achieve landscape scale outcomes (and requiring projects to do the same); and
  5. Providing “targeting narratives” for the MRBI-designated focus areas and the MRBI project watersheds.
From the perspective of MRBI program and project efficiency, WRI recommends:
  1. Prioritizing future MRBI funds for projects that aim to achieve already-existing, landscape-scale policy objectives;
  2. Requiring targeted watershed projects to provide at least a narrative discussion of the cost effectiveness of the projects, and accelerating improvement of methods to quantitatively estimate cost effectiveness of practices and projects; and
  3. Developing a formal framework on adaptive management to more effectively implement MRBI, and requiring projects to include plans for adaptive management in their proposals.
WRI emphasized in its report that the MRBI "is exceptional . . . particularly in its focus on (achieving) environmental outcomes."  From that environmental outcomes' standpoint, WRI suggests:
  1. Establishing advisory teams for water quality monitoring, metrics, and modeling;
  2. Improving leadership and accountability for landscape scale outcomes;
  3. Prioritizing projects with already existing baseline monitoring data or that propose to use a paired watershed approach; and 
  4. Considering requiring watershed-based planning to help ensure attainment of improved landscape-scale water quality outcomes.
The complete 35-page WRI report is available on-line to read and download here.
Suggested citation: Perez, Michelle, and Sara Walker. 2014. “Improving Water Quality: A Review of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) To Target U.S. Farm Conservation Funds” Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Available online here.

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