Targeted Changes to Agriculture Practices Result in Cleaner Water

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Targeted Changes to Agriculture Practices Result in Cleaner Water

Study in Southwest Wisconsin Watershed Shows Significant Reduction in Phosphorus

Madison, Wis. – August 12, 2015 – The results of a nine-year effort to improve water quality in the Pleasant Valley watershed in Dane and Green counties in southwest Wisconsin show that targeting the application of conservation practices on agricultural lands with the highest estimated phosphorus runoff to streams, rather than randomly throughout a watershed, will result in cleaner water.

In 2006, Wisconsin USDA−Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), along with federal, state and county agency staff; the University of Wisconsin (UW) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began a pilot project working with area farmers to determine if targeting conservation efforts on those fields and pastures with the greatest potential for con­tributing nutrients to streams would result in significant improvements in water quality.

Two years of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and UW water quality monitoring data (2013 and 2014), following a three-year implementation period, show a 37% decrease in phosphorus loading from Pleasant Valley during storm events compared to a nearby control watershed where no action was taken. The project focused on 9 farm operations in the watershed with the highest estimated runoff phosphorus losses.

“We can say with 90 percent confidence that this project made a real reduction in the phosphorus losses,” said Laura Good, one of the project leaders who works in the UW−Madison Soil Science Department. “Farmers who changed their management practices reduced both their estimated phosphorus and sediment losses by about half, keeping an estimated average 4,400 pounds of phosphorus and 1,300 tons of sediment out of the water each year.”

“For perhaps the first time anywhere at a watershed scale, farmers in the Pleasant Valley watershed have shown that their good conservation practices improve water quality,” said Jim VandenBrook, Executive Director, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

“This is important as cities, counties, wastewater treatment plants, food-processing facilities and other industries wrestle with how to reduce their nutrient pollution to streams even more in the coming years,” said Steve Richter, conservation director with TNC. “One way could be to stop soil and nutrients from moving downstream in the first place by using this targeted approach and providing financial support to farmers upstream to implement strategic changes on farm fields, pastures, stream banks or around the barnyards that will measurably improve water quality.”

Dane and Green county soil and water conservation staff worked with area farmers to identify alternative management practices, including different types of tillage, crop rota­tions and manure handling that would reduce sediment and nutrient runoff while maintaining the farm’s production capability.

“We found no-till provided the greatest benefit in reducing soil erosion and phosphorus losses while maintaining farm productivity,” said Curt Diehl, Conservation Specialist with the Dane County Land Conservation Division. “In addition to no-till, farmers wanted to try other practices as well. One dairy farmer decided to change his crop rotation by adding winter rye no-tilled into corn silage ground in the fall to further reduce soil erosion and phosphorus losses while providing feed for his heifers.”

“We worked with farmers to do a financial inventory of the costs associated with the different parts of their farm operations to help them find alternatives that would reduce nutrient and soil losses and work well with their current farm operations to improve their profitability,” said Jim Leverich, On-Farm Research Coordinator at UW Extension.

Primary funding for implementation of the conservation practices was provided by the Wisconsin USDA−NRCS through the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) grant program.

“The CCPI program is a voluntary conservation initiative that provided Pleasant Valley producers with financial and technical assistance, through conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), to make the recommended changes to their farm operations,” said Adam Dowling, District Conservationist for Dane County, USDA-NRCS.

Prior to the start of the project, USGS and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) scientists gathered baseline data on stream flow, water quality, stream channel sediment, phosphorus trans­port and storage, and fish and invertebrate populations to compare differences between the Pleasant Valley watershed where management practices were being changed and the control water­shed in Iowa County, where no action was taken.

Without the control watershed comparison, the reductions would have been masked by normal weather-induced fluctuations in sediment and phosphorus loads and by other uncontrollable land use changes that occurred in both watersheds during the study period.

State biological assessments showed improved conditions in the stream for fish as well as insects and other aquatic macroinvertebrates. More sensitive fish species that are less tolerant of pollution and disturbed habitat, such as brook trout, brown trout and mottled sculpin, are present. The Wisconsin DNR will propose removing Pleasant Valley Branch from the EPA list of sediment-impaired streams.

Partners involved in the project were the Dane, Green and Iowa county land conservation departments, TNC, USGS, UW−Extension, UW−Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin DNR and the Wisconsin USDA−NRCS.

Additional funding and support for the project was provided by The Monsanto Company and the McKnight Foundation through gifts to TNC, USGS, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Wisconsin DNR.

Additional information can be found at


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