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A Benefit of the Conservation Reserve Program: Paying Farmers to Grow Clean Water

July 1, 2016

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The Hull family has partnered with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in Vermont to conserve sensitive riparian areas on their dairy farm by establishing forested buffer zones and installing high-tensile fence, stream crossings and other water handling equipment. Photo © USDA / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Ask someone in the rural Midwest what the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does, and a likely answer is: “It pays farmers not to farm.” But, research recently published in the journal Ecosystem Services suggests a better answer would be: It pays farmers to grow clean water.

It’s a better answer because with nutrient pollution threatening drinking water supplies, impacting boating and fishing on lakes and rivers throughout the Midwest and causing a persistent “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, figuring out how to produce clean water is a critically important challenge. And the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is key to solving it.

A centerpiece of US farm policy for more than 30 years, the CRP supports voluntary retirement of “environmentally sensitive” agricultural lands by providing annual payments and other incentives to farmers who restore enrolled lands for the duration of a 10- or 15-year contract.

The program has been implemented across the US, at its peak in 2007 restoring approximately 37 million acres. The CRP was created to support conservation and lands enrolled provide numerous environmental benefits including creating wildlife habitat, minimizing soil loss, and reducing nutrient loading.

Yet despite this evidence of the benefits of CRP, support for the program is declining as recent federal legislation reduced the acreage cap for the program allowing a maximum of 24 million total acres to be enrolled. In addition, high crop prices are prompting many farmers to allow their contracts to expire, resulting in millions of acres voluntarily exiting the program as well.

Gail Dunlap used the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to implement many conservation practices on her land, including restoring nearly seven acres of wetlands on one of her Ohio farms. Photo © USDA / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Gail Dunlap used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to implement many conservation practices on her land, including restoring nearly seven acres of wetlands on one of her Ohio farms. Photo © USDA / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

But reductions in acres restored by CRP cover couldn’t come at a worse time.

According to the EPA nearly half of our nation’s streams and rivers are impaired largely as a result of nutrient runoff from agriculture. Nearly a third of streams in agricultural areas of the country have nitrate levels that exceed safe levels, endangering drinking water supplies of private wells and major cities throughout the Midwest.

The costs of treating this impaired water are so high that the water utility in Des Moines, Iowa filed a federal law suit against the upstream agricultural counties that the city feels are responsible for their impaired water. And in August of 2014 500,000 people in Toledo went without water when a nutrient-fueled algal bloom made water from Lake Erie too toxic to drink.

To address these challenges we must use every tool in our tool box to improve water quality in the Midwest and across the country, and our recent research shows that lands in CRP provide water quality and other benefits that more than pay for the cost of payments to farmers.

Paul and Becky Rogers converted 14 acres of land in Kent County Michigan to native pollinator habitat seven years ago through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program. Photo © USDA / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Paul and Becky Rogers converted 14 acres of land in Kent County Michigan to native pollinator habitat seven years ago through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program. Photo © USDA / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Specifically, our group of researchers from The Nature Conservancy, the University of Minnesota and the Army Corps of Engineers found that even modest increases in CRP acres in a pilot watershed in Iowa significantly decreased loading of nitrogen and phosphorus. Our analysis determined that increasing CRP acres compared to the baseline would also reduce flood damages, improve air-quality, and sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Across multiple scenarios and using varying assumptions our research showed consistently that enrollment in CRP and targeted restoration of annual crops to perennial vegetation improves water quality and provides total benefits of greater value than the cost of payments to farmers. Specifically, expanding CRP acres in Indian Creek would cost an average per-acre payment of $1,311 over the life of a 10-year contract but would generate public and private benefits with a value between $1,710 and $6,401.

These numbers tell us that investment in CRP in Indian Creek, and likely in other watersheds in the Upper Midwest, is justified based upon the value of public and private benefits provided by CRP lands. At a time when millions of people face drinking water crises, beach closures and degraded streams and rivers in the Midwest this research suggests that investment in the Conservation Reserve Program makes sense and that we should continue to pay our farmers to grow clean water.

Kris Johnson

Kris Johnson is the Senior Scientist for the North America Water Program of The Nature Conservancy. In this role he leads collaborative scientific projects around the country that highlight opportunities for land use that can both support communities and sustain healthy and productive ecosystems. More from Kris

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3 comments

  1. Yes, these are proven methods to restore riparian habitat and improve water quality. I imagine the issues preventing more enrollment range from farmers not wanting to change to so much farmland rented and tenant wanting to produce on every acre they pay for. Perhaps rented land is not even eligible for the programs. The education aspect of these programs could be the most valuable part.

    1. Response from Kris Johnson: Thanks for the comment and I agree CRP has been critical for restoring riparian and upland habitat in the last several decades. You’re right that land ownership is necessary for participation in CRP. But there are also other eligibility requirements that limit enrollment including the history of cultivation, the sensitivity of the land, the interest of the landowner and perhaps most importantly the acreage cap that limits the total size of the program. Other effective conservation programs have been launched as CRP acres have declined but this paper focused on demonstrating that continued investment in CRP would make sense given the public benefits the lands provide.

  2. It really is a waste of time. Its almost time!!!! The earth as all know it shall become un known. The sound of so many running and screaming will be deafning. There are no records of this up coming event. Know this every creature shall participate. If you don’t know what not to do you Will die. Those under the surface will be the first to be attacked. Unless you know what not to do you will die! Mother earth is missed! Conservation? A little late for that don’t you think? FEW WILL SURVIVEThose