Exploring New Ways of Measuring Water Quality Project Success

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Last month, more than 50 watershed project managers; federal, state and local officials; and NGO representatives gathered together in Sycamore, Illinois for the fifth Leadership in Midwestern Watersheds (LMW)* forum. The diverse stakeholders attending this meeting share a common goal: improving water quality by reducing agricultural runoff in targeted watersheds.

Though I always enjoy myself at this forum, this meeting was particularly electric. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had just announced the list of 115 projects selected under the new Regional Conservation Partnerships Program (RCPP), which Secretary Vilsack has called “a new era in American conservation efforts.” The RCPP is especially exciting because it’s a departure from the typical federal conservation program. Most USDA programs aim to solve water quality, water quantity, or wildlife problems on individual farms—the RCPP aims to do so on multiple farms within a specific watershed or region to achieve landscape-level outcomes. In short, it’s designed to concentrate “the right conservation practices, in the right places, at the right scale, and at the right time,” in order to measurably improve stream, lake, or bay water quality, water quantity and wildlife populations.

The challenge is, how do we help make sure this new approach is successful?

While water quality improvement is the best indicator of a water quality project’s success, RCPP project leaders at the forum shared concerns that monitoring can sometimes take a long time to show results, especially in large watersheds. Others noted that they wanted to report on metrics of success beyond the usual administrative metrics (i.e., number of conservation practices installed and dollars spent). One participant said, “Everyone wants to see results, but we’re all stumbling to figure out what and how.”

To that end, forum attendees made several recommendations for how RCPP and other water quality project managers could track their projects’ success. For example:

  • For the most sought-after environmental outcomes—water quality improvements—project leaders underscored the importance of selecting the right water quality indicators to monitor (e.g., nitrate, phosphorus, sediment, dissolved oxygen, algae, etc.) at the right scale (e.g., at the edge-of-the-field, in tile drains, in streams, at the watershed outlet) to reflect each watershed’s specific situation in order to see results as soon as possible.
  • Others suggested that a variety of nutrient and soil erosion estimation tools—like the Phosphorus Index, the Hydrology Characterization Tool (HCT), and nutrient management planning software—can be used to evaluate pollution-reduction outcomes before and after implementation of conservation practices on the field.
  • Still others shared that they would use social science surveys and interviews to measure social outcomes like changes in farmers’ opinions, beliefs and behaviors. These surveys should be conducted at the beginning and end of a project.
  • Though the group didn’t directly discuss economic criteria for success, these are also important to consider. Project managers could either calculate a quantitative estimate of cost-effectiveness, such as dollars per pound of nitrogen reduced, or they could provide a narrative description of why focusing on certain practices or land uses are likely to generate more bang for the buck.

These recommended metrics dovetail nicely with the criteria for success specified by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS):

“NRCS will invest in projects that generate near-term results that are measurable from environmental, economic, and social perspectives. Both partners and NRCS staff will be involved with documenting the outcomes of these conservation investments through collecting environmental resource data designed to measure the results of projects.”

At the end of the day, the members of the LMW forum and all the agricultural and environmental members of the conservation community are thrilled to be working in this new partnership with NRCS. We will share a longer version of this list of metrics with NRCS to encourage the agency to disseminate these suggestions to the other RCPP project leaders. In so doing, we hope to help others report on a variety of outcomes soon.

The Leadership in Midwestern Watersheds annual meetings started in 2011 and are the result of a partnership among the following organizations; for more information, please contact Mike Baise of American Farmland Trust, Todd Sutphin of Iowa Soybean Association, Rebecca Powers of North Central Region Water Network, or Joseph Britt of Sand County Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy. Michelle Perez is a Senior Associate in the World Resources Institute’s Water program. For more information on the recommended metrics, please contact Michelle directly.

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