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Being Cautiously Optimistic: A Water Quality Story

Published onDec 24, 2019
Being Cautiously Optimistic: A Water Quality Story

Nutrient and sediment inputs to surface water due to agricultural activities can become localized impairments. Pollutants that bypass the local scale can aggregate at larger scales and contribute to national concerns (e.g., Gulf hypoxia). In place and along the way, these impairments pass significant costs on to society, some in the form of damages that require regular corrective actions (Tegtmeier and Duffy, 2004) and others that manifest in increasingly complex and concerning ways (Temkin et al., 2019). Consider the state of Iowa as a case study: Iowa is a leading contributor to nutrients reaching the Gulf (Alexander et al., 2008). Almost 65% of the population lives in urban areas, with the vast majority living in one of the nine municipalities in the state. Examining a map of Iowa’s officially impaired waterbodies 1 one can observe the proximity of Iowa’s largest cities to impairments associated with large river systems (Figure 1); a proximity that denotes chronic exposure to health risk, lost opportunity, diminished social experience, and collective concern. Rural citizens also have significant reason to be concerned, with upwards of 300,000 rural people in Iowa using water from ground water wells, of which water quality surveys suggest it is highly likely that a significant proportion are impaired due to concentrations of nitrate and coliform bacteria (Schechinger, 2019).

Figure 1. Map of Iowa’s draft 2016 list of impaired rivers and lakes (Draft). Municipalities in Iowa, denoted by green circles. Map: Iowa DNR, 2017.

This state of affairs is a spatial, cumulative, and temporal phenomenon that has challenged water quality policy for decades. Because many of the causal pathways are non-point source in nature, regulatory approaches have very limited reach. As such, throughout the region various government-led incentive programs have emerged to encourage and facilitate voluntary farmer/landowner adoption of Best Management Practices (BMPs): Management or structural practices that are designed to minimize a farm field’s contribution to downstream concerns (e.g., practices that minimize erosion and run-off, and concomitant sediment and nutrient transport off-farm and downstream). Incentives are typically a mixture of technical guidance, service, and financial support to offset the costs of BMP adoption and long-term use. Since the mid 1980’s federal conservation programs alone have paid farmers and landowners billions of dollars, largely spent on conservation efforts in and around farm fields (Zimmerman et al., 2019). Meanwhile, water quality, biodiversity, habitat, and recreation issues persist at various scales, with no sign of significant mitigative progress in sight (US EPA, 2019).

Ultimately, the reasons for the apparent disconnect between conservation efforts and outcomes at broad scales are a complex mix of bio-physical, economic and social conditions (e.g., Osmond et al. 2012). Yet one of the key and mechanistically correctable issues is associated with ineffective application of effort. A number of broad-scale conservation assessments conducted in the U.S. Cornbelt region have noted that historical application of conservation practices has not been spatially targeted toward critical sources and/or pathways of contaminants, and that there has been a distinct lack of watershed-scale hydrologic consideration given to allocating conservation efforts (Lemke et al., 2010; Tomer and Locke, 2011; Tomer et al., 2013). Furthermore, conservation strategies often focus on single contaminants and ignore both trade-offs among contaminants as well as synergies toward multiple outcomes such as enhancing localized and regional water quality and habitat (Tomer and Locke, 2011). As such, uncoordinated conservation efforts to date have been called “random acts of conservation” that, while providing localized ecosystem benefits, generally have failed to manifest at scales relevant to society (Knight, 2005). It’s important to the story, however, to keep in mind that to this point, the capacity of conservation agencies to spatially and hydrologically target conservation efforts and resources has been hampered by a lack of data and precise/accurate planning tools, as well as the tremendous cost of conservation planning at watershed scales (US EPA, 2008).

Despite this history (or perhaps in the face of it), eleven states throughout the Mississippi River Basin (MRB) (following Iowa’s 2012 lead) have developed comprehensive farm-oriented nutrient reduction strategies collectively designed to reduce total nitrogen and phosphorus loads in the Mississippi River by 45% (US EPA, 2019). Yet, these strategies are centered upon widespread voluntary adoption of in-field or edge-of-field nutrient reducing Best Management Practices (BMPs) such as nutrient management, no-till farming, cover crops, buffers, reconstructed wetlands, and/or denitrifying bioreactors.

While this may seem like history repeating itself, independent of these state-level Nutrient Reduction Strategies, key science and technology oriented stakeholders in regional water quality have been quietly assembling and making publicly available an historically unparalleled array of high resolution data, derived products, and decision support tools that are ushering in the next generation of conservation planning capacity. These advancements in and public availability of geospatial data (e.g., 1-meter resolution LiDAR data) and GIS-based conservation planning models (e.g., Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework – ACPF – Tomer et al., 2015) are enabling rapid, accurate, and inexpensive spatially targeted conservation planning at basin (e.g., HUC 12) and farm scales in ways that are potentially revolutionary in the world of conservation.

Underscoring this new era in conservation planning capacity, fully processed and ready-to-use spatial and economic data are rapidly accumulating in publicly accessible databases, taking advantage of parallel advances in data storage, encryption, and broad based internet access. Furthermore, advances in low to no cost, data-driven decision-support tools that give utility to this data (e.g., ACPF) are driving a socio-technological phenomenon. That is, a place where tools are simultaneously becoming more sophisticated and powerful, but also easier to use by a broader array of stakeholders and partners – a dynamic that allows planning to occur as a horizontal process among partners and not a top-down expert driven process (which has been shown to be problematic for many reasons; Cox, 2016). In short, more and more public and private partnerships in water quality can be empowered and enabled to formulate low-cost, precise and actionable conservation plans in ways simply not possible prior.

Mechanistically, it could be argued that conservation planning in the U.S. Cornbelt region can now be done in ways that address the biophysical disconnect between conservation actions and outcomes. Conservation agencies broadly adopting this spatially targeted approach to planning and then allocating resources in a similarly targeted fashion will be key to fulfilling the promise of this new frontier and by extension, exacting outcomes beneficial to society at spatial and temporal scales that matter. Even though the twelve state-level nutrient reduction strategies distinctly lack direct policy initiatives or really, even direct policy guidance, the context for new water quality policy and incentives that these strategies offer is unprecedented.

So, why not fundamentally shift conservation policy in ways that take full advantage of these opportunities? Ultimately this is a question for the key agencies, primarily the USDA-NRCS in this case, to be called upon to answer directly. To make the choice to embrace spatially targeted conservation easier, a unified and persuasive stakeholder/partner argument of sorts is emerging. Agriculture is a socially constructed system, and the architects of the prevailing designs are the stakeholders who both guide and physically make the landscape. The following is an overview of what these stakeholders have to say about all this. Tyndall et al. (2019) overview a conservation policy expert Delphi study where spatially targeted conservation planning was a near universal recommendation for enhancing and protecting water quality. Farmers and landowners by and large buy into the concept of spatial targeting and the use of spatial planning tools and public data that features their land and that of their watershed neighbors (Kalcic et al., 2014; Zimmerman et al., 2019), although there is some disagreement among farmers on how best to incentivize the approach. In a statewide survey of Iowa citizens, the majority of respondents (64%) indicated they would vote for a conservation policy change that explicitly featured spatial targeting. Remarkably, they also indicated they would be willing to help pay the costs of such a policy shift to the tune of $400 million (on top of existing taxes) over a 10-year policy implementation period (Arbuckle et al., 2015). So, to recap, agricultural policy experts recognize spatial targeting as a way to improve water quality, farmers indicate some acceptance of spatial targeting in practice, citizens demand conservation policy that is centered on a conservation planning approach, the technology and data are in place to perform such planning at historically low costs, and the technology is getting better every day.

How persuasive this unified argument is for spatially targeted conservation planning and explicit policy that actualizes this science remains to be seen. It makes social, economic, and mechanistic sense to move conservation in this direction with the full technical and financial backing of national and state conservation powers (Secchi et al., 2008). Yet, tremendous challenges are ahead. The top of a very long laundry list of challenges includes: How to pay for the extraordinarily high cost of conservation at scale (Robotyagov et al., 2014), the complex and often long hydrologic lag times associated with water quality management (Meals et al., 2010), the somewhat questionable likelihood of broad voluntary farmer adoption (Prokopy et al., 2019), the lack of political will to respond to public conservation interests (Cohen, 2019), the idea that this approach ignores the strong correlation between water quality and the total number of acres in row crops (Schilling and Libra, 2000), and on and on. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of this author that there is reason to be at least cautiously optimistic about future water quality in the region. The context and ability for making informed decisions relative to water quality is leaps and bounds better now then it was just ten years ago. Thus, the road ahead, while very steep, is not as steep as it once was. And this, I believe, is at least a somewhat hopeful state of affairs.


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This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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