News | August 21, 2014

Water And Agriculture Leaders Plant Seeds For Environmental Progress In Rare Collaboration

The US Water Alliance issued a report recently highlighting common ground and innovative strategies between agriculture and water and wastewater utilities to reduce nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin. “Coming Together to Protect Mississippi River Watersheds: Agriculture and Water Sector Collaboration for Nutrient Progress” (August 2014) embodies the discussions and recommendations of agriculture, wastewater, and drinking water leaders, with participation from environmental, academic and scientific, business, local, state, and Federal agency interests.

"Communities and waterways thrive when farms and watershed utilities work together,” Ben Grumbles, President of the U.S. Water Alliance, said. “The Nutrient Dialogues chart a clearer course to clean and safe water through sustained collaboration and innovation so that valuable resources are recovered and costly problems are prevented." Grumbles added: “This is the missing ingredient that builds on the success of important environmental regulations.”

Participants met frequently between March 2013 and February 2014 in cities and towns across the Upper and Middle Mississippi River Basin to build trust and understanding. The starting place for the Mississippi River Nutrient Dialogues was common recognition that current “point source” regulation under the Clean Water Act and non-point source voluntary efforts to manage nutrient loadings are not achieving the reductions needed for a healthy, vibrant River Basin 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 and ongoing broader efforts, participants in the Nutrient Dialogues worked together closely to identify opportunities for targeted, localized solutions based on new partnerships. Here are key strategies and recommendations from the report:

  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, EPA's 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, such as water quality trading, 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: These entities would raise funds and invest them in the lowest cost opportunities to address nutrient loading and other issues on behalf of the general public and key stakeholders. The concept integrates components from the other three areas to advance a statewide or regional strategy to reduce nutrient loading. The utility offers potential to blend the comparative advantages of the public and private sector to address these water quality issues at a larger scale with greater effectiveness.

The Dialogues were prompted by the challenges of nutrient pollution facing the Mississippi River Basin, as well as communities and regions throughout the U.S., from the Great Lakes to the East and West Coasts. The report states that “high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous threaten human health, wildlife and plant populations, recreation opportunities, and livelihoods in communities and watersheds throughout the Mississippi River Basin.” The effort received financial and in-kind support from the McKnight Foundation, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, and Meridian Institute, with active engagement and support from representatives of agricultural and water-related utilities and organizations, environmental groups, state and federal government, and academic and scientific research organizations.

Additional quotes from integral members of the dialogue:

“We live in a time where the population has soared and consumption continues to rise. We cannot afford to face environmental challenges in an isolated fashion. We must consider affordable food, clean water and economy. Nutrient runoff is a challenge but it is not the last challenge and does not stand alone. Through this dialogue, it was clear that a new strategy is needed to meet the challenges of today and face challenges of the future. I hope this dialogue becomes a roadway for action. Working together, we can build a sustainable tomorrow.” – David St. Pierre, Executive Director, MWRDGC

“Realizing meaningful progress on nutrient and water quality challenges takes a commitment of leadership with the capacity and capabilities to make a difference. The MRND agreements are where innovation and creativity are ripe for cultivation. Our ability to meet future demand for food, water, and energy while also supporting a strong economy and high quality of life depends on integrating and aligning our strategies. We stand ready to advance and accelerate progress on these pressing challenges. Let’s resolve to making it happen.” – Roger Wolf, Director of Environmental Programs & Services, Iowa Soybean Association

"It may have seemed a risk to bring together leaders from our water utilities and agricultural sectors, but the energy and innovation that flowed from this diverse mixture of perspectives and experiences is what is needed to solve one of our nation’s most complex challenges — nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico." – Michael Reuter, Freshwater Program Director, The Nature Conservancy

About U.S. Water Alliance
The U.S. Water Alliance was formed in 2008 as a 501c3 nonprofit educational organization whose goal is to unite people and policy for “one water” sustainability. The Alliance awards the U.S. Water Prize, organizes the One Water Leadership Summit annually, and is Project Manager for the Value of Water Coalition. A broad cross-section of interests has come together through the Alliance to advance holistic, watershed-based solutions to water quality and quantity challenges. For more information, visit www.USWaterAlliance.org.

SOURCE: The U.S. Water Alliance

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