Sep 10, 2014

Nutritious Discussions

Report outlines four action items for reducing nutrient pollution

Talk is cheap but downright invaluable when it leads to fruitful collaboration among water and wastewater utilities and agricultural producers in nutrient-stressed watersheds of the Mississippi River. A recent report of the Mississippi River Nutrient Dialogues (MRND), sponsored by the U.S. Water Alliance, embodies the spirit of cooperation between the water and agriculture sectors and lays out four areas for meaningful progress to reduce nutrient pollution and increase productivity of our land and water. 

Joint Efforts

Between March 2013 and February 2014, a group of leaders in agriculture and drinking water and wastewater utilities gathered four times in cities across the Upper and Middle Mississippi River Basin to explore how their sectors might mutually benefit by working together to reduce excess nutrients in waterways and watersheds. The effort would not have been possible without the strong support of the McKnight Foundation, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread and Meridian Institute, and also the active engagement of representatives from conservation and environmental, state and federal government, community college and university organizations. 

The starting point for the dialogues was common recognition that current point source regulation and non-point source voluntary efforts to manage nutrient loading are not achieving the reductions needed for a healthy, vibrant River and Gulf. As noted in the report: “Though there were considerable differences of view within the group about the sources of excess nutrients and the extent of the impacts, there was agreement that both the agriculture and water sectors stand to benefit from efforts to reduce the amount of nutrients leaving agricultural lands.” Building on previous efforts, participants in the MRND worked together to develop strategies and identify opportunities for future joint effort to advance solutions to the Mississippi River Basin’s nutrient management challenges. 

Watershed Strategies

Key strategies and recommendations, taken verbatim from the report include:

1. Expand Effective Watershed-Based Cooperative Leadership and Decision-Making. Locally led, watershed-scale initiatives should include watershed assessment, planning, monitoring and projects to improve water quality that are supported by both the agriculture and water communities, as well as by other stakeholders. Key recommendations to advance this strategy are testing it through opportunities such as USDA’s new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new integrated planning initiative, and experimentation with watershed-based permitting.

2. Further Develop and Implement Market Mechanisms for Reducing Nutrients. Build on and expand existing efforts to provide cost-effective nutrient reductions to utilities and additional revenue streams to agriculture through market-based payments for ecosystem services efforts. To help establish and expand markets, stakeholders should determine the magnitude and potential margin of water quality markets and identify opportunities to increase agriculture and water leaders’ participation in creating such markets.

3. Improve Data, Monitoring, and Modeling to Support Decisions and Markets. Further data is needed both for producers to continually improve nutrient management and to inform potential water sector investments in and partnerships with agriculture aimed at reducing nutrient pollution, including through payments for ecosystem services projects. To strengthen baseline assessments, monitoring, and data aggregation, a wide range of partners should be engaged; monitoring should be linked to watershed-scale efforts; and improved, cheaper nutrient sensors should be developed.

4. Develop “Watershed Protection Utilities,” Organizations Focused on Cost-Effective Results. This new governing entity would raise funds and invest them in the lowest cost opportunities to address nutrient loading and other issues on behalf of the general public. This concept, which integrates components from all three of the areas above to advance a statewide or regional strategy to reduce nutrient loading, deserves further consideration and development.

Members of the dialogue intend to spread the news and views broadly to citizens and thought leaders over the next year, working with organizations such as America’s Watershed Initiative (www.greatriverpartnership.org), the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (www.nemw.org/index.php/current-initiative), and the Federal-State Gulf Hypoxia Task Force (www.water.epa/gov). Every watershed collaboration will have to be different, reflecting the human and hydrological variations in the Mississippi’s many communities and ecosystems, but I view the basic playbook of the Nutrient Dialogues (and the unique process behind it) as a good start. Here is to fruitful discussions that find fertile, common ground for healthier landscapes and cleaner waters. 

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