We’re paying farmers and ranchers millions of dollars to improve water quality. But does it work?
The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality will launch a pilot project to test paying landowners for results, as opposed to simply paying for conservation projects with the assumption they benefit water quality.
FARGO — North Dakota has paid farmers and ranchers for at least three decades to encourage them to adopt conservation practices aimed at protecting water quality.
Many millions of dollars have been spent nationwide in conservation efforts to improve water quality — but proof that they provide any real environmental benefits is elusive at best.
Now a new initiative by the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, in partnership with the Fargo-based International Water Institute, is devising a news strategy that will reward demonstrated progress, not merely pay for material costs for changes that are presumed beneficial.
Benefits from individual conservation projects intended to improve water quality from diffuse sources of pollution, called non-point source pollution, are difficult to measure, said Greg Sandness, a pollution management program coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.
“These small projects, it’s hard to see the change,” he said. “The benefits are more local at that large watershed scale.”
Following the traditional approach, North Dakota environmental officials have awarded picking up 60% of the tab to pay the cost of materials. The program pays ranchers to build fences, for example, allowing them to rotate their cattle among pastures, helping to maintain healthy grass and soil that in turn helps to prevent runoff of sediment and manure.
Similarly, the program pays farmers for nutrient management programs, including buffer strips, again to prevent runoff of sediment and fertilizer that degrade water quality.
Each year, North Dakota receives $2 to $3 million from the Environmental Protection Agency for grants to address non-point source water pollution by working with landowners.
To be successful, farmers and ranchers must be convinced that the conservation projects will be worthwhile to their operations, said Sandness and Chuck Fritz, director of the International Water Institute.
“It's got to be economical,” Sandness said. “If it doesn’t have the producer’s blessing it’s going nowhere. The real driver’s going to be the landowner.”
Officials will coordinate with North Dakota farmers, commodity groups and private companies to develop recommendations for a framework for pay-for-progress incentives to improve water quality.
The International Water Institute, which started under the Tri-College and is now independent, has been working for more than two years on developing a framework to work with landowners on conservation.
The effort began three years ago when The Mosaic Company, an international farm chemical manufacturer, approached the institute, Fritz said. For input, he met with 10 farmers from North Dakota and Minnesota, eight of which came from the Red River Valley.
Fritz’s team gathered data from the farmers and used it to devise 15 indicators to measure soil quality and improvements.
“We’re trying to figure out a way farmers can get paid for results,” instead of merely spending money in cost-sharing programs, Fritz said.
“Does it matter what practices a farmer uses to reduce sediment?” he said. “It’s the environmental outcomes that are difficult to measure.”
A recent 15-year trend analysis of Red River water quality by the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, showed mixed results.
Sulfate, chloride and total dissolved solids showed increases in a majority of monitoring sites, according to the 2020 report . On the other hand, a majority of sites monitoring total nitrogen and phosphorus showed decreases. The approach analyzes soils in small portions of fields, called catchments, and monitors runoff using the 15 indicators, including soil infiltration, to arrive at stewardship ratings for each field.
Coming up with the framework for the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality will require answering difficult questions, Fritz said.
“What is a ton of soil worth?” he said, citing an example. “What should we pay for that ton of soil? What should society pay for a pound of phosphates to have that phosphate stay in the field?”
Over the years, Fritz has become skeptical of the approach of paying landowners to make changes that government officials presume benefit water quality, but have no way of proving.
“We’re spending how much money and what are we getting for it?” he said. “Some of these conservation programs, the amount we’re paying now is astronomical. It’s crazy.”
If farmers are shown they can significantly reduce sediment loss, they will readily see the benefits and sign up for the program, Fritz said.
The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality will receive recommendations from the International Water Institute by December 2023, with a pilot project to follow, Sandness said.
Federal environmental officials are interested in North Dakota’s pay-for-progress experiment, he said. “EPA, they’re looking at it very favorably,” he said.