A new multi-disciplinary study combining a common model of agricultural landscapes with river system models has found the most cost-effective way to reach policy goals for reducing nitrogen and sediment loss requires more collaboration across multiple agencies.

The research from the Le Sueur River Basin in the Upper Midwest included engineers, agricultural economists and others who knew from existing studies that “whatever we do on the field, it’s not going to be enough” to meet nutrient reduction goals, said Amy Hansen, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Kansas and lead author of a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By building a new model that combined the Soil and Water Assessment Tool for ag land with two river system models, the researchers found that strategically placed constructed wetlands had the greatest potential to prevent nitrogen runoff and sediment loss. But these wetlands require significantly more up-front investment than cover crops or other conservation practices and will likely only be possible through pooling of funds from different sources.

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Hansen said cost estimates include loss of revenue from land taken out of agricultural production, though the model does not delve into the challenge of getting cooperation across multiple landowners. Future research, spun off from this first-of-its-kind study, will address costs and farmer interest in participating and the larger scope of impact on the Upper Mississippi River Basin, including on fish and other species.

The paper concludes “extensive inter-agency cooperation and coordination at a watershed scale is required to achieve substantial, economically viable improvements in water quality under intensive row-crop agricultural production.” 

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