On Jan. 7, the World Resources Institute (WRI) released the first in a three-part series of reports focused on the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Conservation Service (NRCS) Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI). The report provides an assessment of the program, which started in 2009. The program is still in its initial implementation phase, so WRI writes that it is premature to assess its effects on water quality. However, in examining the administrative aspects, WRI concluded that with some improvements, the initiative could “help achieve measurable improvements in many local streams and rivers.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 15,000 nutrient-related impaired waters, and agriculture is a leading source of impairment. The Mississippi River Basin is home to many agricultural activities. Stormwater containing fertilizer and manure drains into the Mississippi and flows to the Gulf of Mexico, which contains the country’s largest dead zone.

The MRBI targets 54 watersheds in 13 states. It focuses conservation funding on high-priority watersheds at the landscape-scale rather than on individual farms. WRI gave the program high marks for NRCS’ targeted approach. The program also received good marks for working with expert partners, including state conservationists, state technical committees, and state water quality agencies, that help NRCS select priority targets.

However, areas of improvement include strengthening monitoring efforts. WRI writes that achieving success requires monitoring results at the field, in-stream, and watershed outlet scales. The MRBI also received low marks for its cost effectiveness in terms of maximum environmental benefit per dollar spent. According to WRI, watershed- and farm-scale computer modeling tools could aid project planning and evaluation and help planners identify the most cost-effective practices. Finally, WRI recommends that NRCS give landowners and stakeholders more local ownership of projects by involving them at the start of any project.

The report, “Improving Water Quality: A Review of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) to Target U.S. Farm Conservation Funds,” analyzed six success factors associated with the MRBI. These include cost-effectiveness, geographic targeting, stakeholder involvement, evidence of time-sensitive and measurable goals, monitoring and evaluation, and use of adaptive management. Read more in WRI’s blog.