This joint report from WRI and the American Farmland Trust features lessons learned from six water quality targeting project success stories and highlights key factors that allowed these programs to achieve desirable environmental outcomes. It concludes with recommendations for both public and private sectors to help other projects achieve and measure landscape-scale environmental outcomes.

The report and its recommendations were developed based on literature reviews and interviews with USDA staff, farm conservation and water quality experts, and leaders of the six projects.

Key Findings

Success stories highlighted

  • CALIFORNIA'S WALKER CREEK PROJECT—Achieved three years of no Chlorpyrifos pesticide exceedances, thereby complying with state regulations for irrigated cropland.
  • OKLAHOMA'S HONEY CREEK PROJECT—Proposed delisting the stream (from the Oklahoma List of Impaired Waters) for E. coli impairment given a 51 percent load reduction, as well as load reductions in nitrate, total phosphorus, and Enterococcus by 35, 28, and 34 percent, respectively, compared with the control watershed.
  • IOWA'S HEWITT CREEK PROJECT—Documented a 60 percent decrease in turbidity (water cloudiness) and a 40 percent decrease in total phosphorus concentrations in the stream; quantified social and economic outcomes—e.g., created a "watershed community" and increased farmer profitability.
  • WISCONSIN'S PLEASANT VALLEY STREAM REHABILITATION PROJECT—Proposed delisting the stream from the Wisconsin List of Impaired Waters for sediment impairment due to documented improvements in six metrics, including a 50 percent decrease in fine sediment material and increasing trout by 70 to 100 percent.
  • WISCONSIN'S PLEASANT VALLEY ON-FARM PHOSPHORUS AND SEDIMENT REDUCTION PROJECT—Reduced total phosphorus storm event loads by 55 percent and sediment storm loads during unfrozen conditions by 66 percent, compared with the control watershed.
  • INDIANA'S SHATTO DITCH PROJECT—Documented an 80 percent reduction in nitrate-N loss from tile drains through year-round sampling at the watershed scale.

Key Factors in Achieving Project Success Include

  • Relying on local conservation districts
  • Fostering farmer leadership
  • Conducting geographic targeting
  • Using paired watershed monitoring programs
  • Modeling environmental outcomes

Recommendations include

  • Watershed project leaders should heed available guidance on in-stream water quality monitoring and adopt appropriate modeling tools to quantify and report environmental outcomes
  • Congress should provide more financial and technical assistance to farmers and conservationists through the Farm Bill and the EPA-state Section 319 programs for watershed conservation projects;
  • EPA should offer training to disseminate its new 2016 guidance on water quality monitoring, and also offer to help train NRCS staff to evaluate monitoring plans included in future RCPP proposals
  • NRCS should offer greater technical guidance to the new RCPP project leaders who want to quantify environmental, social, and economic outcomes associated with their project's conservation practices
  • Corporations and charitable foundations should support more watershed-focused and outcomes-quantification work