Thursday, October 23, 2014

Measuring BMP's Effectiveness

On Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) announced a joint project that will study and measure the water quality improvements that are actually achieved from farmers' use of conservation practices. Working together, the NRCS and the USGS will measure and quantify the benefits of voluntary agricultural practices known as best management practices or BMPs.

In Virginia the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts help implement BMPs through the Virginia Cost-Share Programs that are used as an incentive for farmers to implement BMPs. (Full disclosure: I volunteer and am Treasurer at the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District.) The Conservation Districts provide free technical assistance to property owners that include developing conservation plans for agriculture properties, state cost share money to help pay for installing BMPs from 100% for stream exclusion fencing down to $35/acre for cover crops. The majority of BMPs have a 75% of the cost reimbursed by the Conservation Districts and the remaining 25% paid for by the farmer can be claimed as a tax credit. The Conservation Districts help farmers implement and pay for environmentally sound agricultural practices and verify that the BMPs are installed and maintained. There has long been a need for real world measurement of the effectiveness of BMPs on the watershed.

Nutrient runoff, nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, carried by rainwater and snowmelt impacts many of our nation’s waterways including the Mississippi Delta and the Chesapeake Bay. These pollutants, released from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, septic systems and other sources, cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive. In Virginia and the other Chesapeake Bay states BMPs are an extremely important component of the plans for restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Measuring the water quality benefits of BMPs will allow the proper allocation of time and money to the most effective conservation practices.

Nutrient and sediment pollutants that do not come out of a stormwater pipe or waste water treatment plant pipe are washed into the rivers and streams by rain and snowmelt, and the accepted way to reduce this kind of pollution is to implement agriculture and urban best management practices. Agricultural BMPs minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides to achieve a desired level of performance and quality of crops and pastures while protecting the environment. BMPs are also designed to reduce runoff and soil erosion and benefit water quality while maintaining or even enhancing agricultural production.

Now, the USGS will use the Natural Resources Conservation Service database generated and maintained by the state programs on conservation practices and installed BMPs at private farms combined with water monitoring to understand how well these BMPs perform overtime on a watershed scale. Ultimately the USGS will incorporate this information into its surface water quality models, which track how rivers receive and transport nutrients from natural and human sources to downstream reservoirs and estuaries. This will provide crucial information for funding and operating voluntary nutrient management strategies and programs, and provide information for watershed planning.

The partnership between USGS and NRCS was announced at the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force Meeting. The NRCS stated that they will protect the privacy of individual farmers and only plan to use the data to evaluate the effectiveness of the installed BMPs. The data can be used for designing better nutrient management plans, which are likely to be required when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency extends their reach to the next level either directly or indirectly.

When hundreds of farms take action in one watershed, it can make a significant difference reducing nutrient pollution and hopefully helping to prevent algae blooms downstream. “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, deputy assistant secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior the home of the USGS.

The NRCS and USGS will develop conservation intensity data sets that reflect the value of BMPs in terms of improved water quality, but do not reveal private information about individual farms, ranches or forests. The private information of farmers participating in these conservation programs is protected by law and maintaining the trust among the NRCS, the Conservation Districts and the farmers is vital to the continued success of voluntary conservation on private lands. Models that the USGS will develop will allow our Conservation District to have accurate information on the effectiveness of the BPMs and enable us to use our funding to obtain the biggest improvements in water quality.

Nutrient runoff from many different sources, including urban areas and industry, impacts our nation’s waterways. By providing science-based information, NRCS and USGS can help farmers decrease nutrient runoff and improve water quality for their own communities and downstream communities and environments. Close to one-quarter of land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is devoted to agricultural production. According the Chesapeake Bay Foundation the largest source of pollution to the Bay comes from agricultural runoff, which contributes roughly 40% of the nitrogen and 50% of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay. So to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and the other states will have to implement BMPs on the majority of agricultural lands and the data from USGS/NRCS program can help us implement the most cost effective strategies as widely as possible.

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