In this second installment of our 3-part series on better targeting of U.S. farm conservation funds, WRI found that combining geographic targeting with benefit-cost principles could potentially yield seven to 12 times more environmental benefits per dollar spent than the current approach.

To conduct this analysis, we used the best available data and models from the United Stated Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP). We found several technical, institutional, and political barriers preventing attainment of these modeled results and provided four recommendations which may help realize gains in improved water quality and increased cost effectiveness.

Key Findings

Our analysis provided several major findings:

Targeting Approaches

Finding 1. Combining geographic targeting with a benefit-cost targeting approach is most effective at improving cost effectiveness

Finding 2. Even adopting a benefit-cost approach without geographic targeting vastly improves the environmental outcomes that can be achieved for a given budget.

Finding 3. Geographic targeting alone achieves little improvement in environmental outcomes per dollar spent.

Optimization Scenarios

Finding 4. Optimizing multiple environmental benefits simultaneously achieves better outcomes overall than does optimizing just one benefit individually.

Finding 5. Optimizing phosphorus reductions provides more co-benefits than does optimizing any other environmental benefit individually.


Finding 6. Targeting may actually result n a greater number of acres receiving conservation practices at less cost per acre.

Finding 7. If conservation dollars were reallocated based on both geographic and benefit-cost targeting principles, spending would be optimized in fewer, more cost-effective watersheds than under BAU, and funding levels and acres treated would be higher in those watersheds.

Please download the report for recommendations.