Andrew Earl

February 6, 2020

A CLEAR Solution to Nutrient Loading

This Farm Bill-funded program boosts habitat and addresses a watershed-wide problem 

The 2019 planting year was historic—but unfortunately not in the way that many American farmers would like to remember. Unseasonably wet conditions prevented planting on nearly 20 million acres of corn, soybean, and wheat crops, among others, doubling the previous record of 9.6 million acres in 2011. The yearly average is typically between 3-4 million acres.     

Last spring’s deluge caused at least $3 billion in damages to the heartland and brought shipping on the Mississippi to a halt.  The resulting erosion, sediment loss and nutrient runoff carried ecological impacts stretching across thousands of miles. As rain continued to fall in the Missouri and Mississippi River basinsrising waters eroded soils and washed downstream millions of tons of nutrient fertilizer and organic matter from agriculturally productive land. Locally, the depletion of these substances results in reduced crop yields, and when this material reaches the ocean it can be devastating to marine health. 

But thanks to the Farm Bill, there’s a new initiative that will aid in addressing this challenge while both improving water quality and establishing healthy habitat for the birds and game animals that hunters love to chase. 

A Growing Problem

Each year, nutrient runoff in the midwestern United States flows downstream and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The sudden but predictable heightened levels of nitrates and phosphorus result in algae blooms which then decompose and deoxygenate the water tablekilling phytoplankton and fish at the base of the aquatic food-chain. The Gulf of Mexico hypoxia or “dead zone is not the only one in the United States, but it is one of the largest recurring in the world. In 2019, the Gulf dead zone covered 6,952 square miles off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas—the eighth largest on record. Each year, the dead zone dissipates as air and water temperatures drop but swells again in spring.  

The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force (HTF) is comprised of tribal, state and federal officials that coordinate nutrient reduction efforts from both point (wastewater) and non-point (agricultural) sources up and down the Mississippi River basin. The task force is working towards an ambitious goal of reducing the average size of the Gulf dead zone to 1,800 square miles by the year 2035. A problem of such significant scope does not offer a silver bullet solution, and meeting reduction targets requires a full state and federal toolkit. 

A CLEAR Solution

One key mechanism to address non-point source nutrient loading was codified in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative builds on the existing continuousConservation Reserve Program (CRP) to target nutrient and sediment runoff and improve the water quality benefits of existing conservation practices. The CRP incentivizes landowners to retire marginal cropland for a period of 10-15 years and establish vegetative covers that offer a benefit to soil, water, and wildlife habitat—premium for deer, upland bird, and waterfowl hunting. The 2018 bill further required that 40% of continuous-CRP acreage be enrolled via CLEAR, and in order to track the long-term benefit of such practices established a pilot program (CLEAR 30) offering 30-year CLEAR contracts.

Former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack oversaw the creation of CLEAR by the USDA in 2016. According to Vilsack, the installation of CLEAR practices such as duck nesting habitat, riparian buffers, contour grasses, and prairie strips can reduce nitrate runoff by up to 40% more than traditional conservation practices. Since its establishment in 1985, the CRP has grown to be one of the USDA’s most powerful tools in curbing nutrient lossreducing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by a combined 650 million pounds in Fiscal Year 2014 alone. CLEAR has potential to demonstrably increase that benefit. 

As the USDA Farm Service Agency moves ahead with implementing the 2018 bill, the TRCP and our partner organizations are actively engaged in providing feedback to ensure that programs like CLEAR are implemented to achieve the greatest benefit to wildlife. The sum of these efforts will be critical in addressing some of our greatest conservation challenges like the Gulf’s dead zone.   

For more information on the Conservation Reserve Program, visit crpworks.org.

 

Top photo: Jeff Weese via Flickr

2 Responses to “A CLEAR Solution to Nutrient Loading”

  1. Gib Rokich

    CRP is a critical component of maintaining biodiversity in an ever efficient world of modern farming practices. Without large tracts of CRP many areas become sterile farming plots that support only the crop planted.

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Marnee Banks

February 5, 2020

U.S. House Passes Bill to Continue Historic Chesapeake Bay Restoration

Support for this legislation is a critical step forward for hunters and anglers in America’s largest estuary

The U.S. House of Representatives today passed legislation that preserves the economic and recreational value of the Chesapeake Bay.

The bipartisan Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1620) fully funds the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program by authorizing $455 million over the next five years. This program hasn’t been formally authorized since 2005, so this legislation will provide much-needed certainty to state, federal, and nonprofit partners working to restore the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries.

“The Chesapeake Bay is the iconic home to incredible fisheries, migrating waterfowl, and powerful economic opportunity, and some of the best hunting and fishing around,” said Steve Kline, chief policy officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen and women want to thank Congresswoman Elaine Luria and the cosponsors of this legislation for their work ensuring that Bay watershed states can keep working together to brighten the future of the Chesapeake.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act is also part of the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act (ACE Act) which was passed by the Senate unanimously in January.  In addition to the Bay provisions, the ACE Act includes a host of fish and wildlife conservation priorities and House floor passage of the ACE Act represents the clearest way for these key legislative efforts to get to the President’s desk. We urge the House to pass the ACE Act, which also:

  • Reauthorizes the North American Wetlands Conservation Act at $60 million annually through Fiscal Year 2025. The Act has improved over 30 million acres of wetlands, making it one of the nation’s most effective voluntary conservation programs.
  • Establishes a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-led task force to address the spread of chronic wasting disease.
  • Codifies the National Fish Habitat Partnership. Since 2006, the Partnership has overseen over 840 projects to benefit fish habitat and populations.

Guest Blogger Jon Andrew

January 31, 2020

Sea Grass is the Key

An effort by the Angler Action Foundation and the state of Florida to restore essential fish habitat in southwest Florida will pay dividends for the health of its coast and the Everglades

Every coastal angler worth his or her salt is familiar with the importance of sea grass beds. Sea grass meadows are great places to target species like speckled sea trout from spring through fall. Up to 70% of the species desired by anglers, including tarpon, grouper, redfish, and many more, spend some part of their life cycle in this habitat.

It is estimated that healthy sea grass beds contribute more than $20 billion a year to the Florida economy by providing habitat for commercial and sport fisheries, reducing erosion and impacts of storm events, while also sequestering carbon at a rate of 1,200 lbs/year. By any measure, healthy sea grass meadows play an critical ecological and economic role in Florida and around the world. No surprise then, that the significant loss of sea grass beds in coastal Florida has been a serious concern for many.

The Caloosahatchee Estuary on Florida’s southwest coast has suffered from poor water quality.  In addition, increased salinity levels followed by rapid fluctuations in salinity over sustained periods resulted in the loss of up to 1,200 acres of sea grass beds.  Major losses occurred some 15 years ago from which the sea grass has been unable to recover on its own.

An ambitious project began in 2018 under the direction of the Angler Action Foundation. AAF’s mission is to improve angler access, fisheries science, and marine habitat through collaborative research, education, and conservation programs. Funding for the first phase of the work was provided by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, and the leadership of State Senator Kathleen Passidomo and State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen were key to seeing the project receive the necessary support.

Restoration specialists at Sea and Shoreline based in Ruskin, Florida, have led the effort and a third-party ecological assessment of the project is being managed by Johnson Engineering in Fort Meyers and Florida Gulf Coast University.

In late 2018, approximately 20 acres of tape grass and widgeon grass were planted in areas that had been decimated by excessive freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee. Widgeon grass was selected for its ability to pioneer new habitat and tolerate a wide range of salinity.  Tape grass, also known as eelgrass or wild celery, is more tolerant of freshwater than other grasses. Planting these two species will provide some insurance that sea grass beds will establish themselves and remain intact under widely varying salinity levels.

Sea grass plantings were protected by wire-mesh exclosures to protect them form turtles and manatees, thus allowing the plants to take root. Initial surveys indicate very high survival rate, with up to 95% of the plantings thriving and producing seeds and rhizomes that will disperse and hopefully establish themselves in adjacent areas, resulting in a self sustaining sea grass meadow.

Future plans are to expand the footprint of the planted areas and continue to monitor the project’s progress. It is hoped the same methods can be used in other parts of Florida such as the Indian River Lagoon, which has also suffered devastating losses of sea grass habitat.

All in all, the Caloosahatchee planting project promises to reverse one of the more serious threats to Florida’s coastal health and is a key part of restoring the Everglades. Anglers should be encouraged that returning sea grass meadows will ensure that sea trout, tarpon, and redfish populations remain strong for future generations of sportsmen and women.

 

All photos courtesy of Sea and Shoreline

Marnee Banks

January 23, 2020

Conservation Groups Call on U.S. House to Pass ACE Act

The bipartisan legislation will address growing challenges to species and habitat health

More than 50 conservation groups are banding together and calling on the U.S. House of Representatives to pass bipartisan legislation that invests in wetlands, fisheries, chronic wasting disease research, and the Chesapeake Bay.

In early January, the Senate passed the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act or ACE Act (H.R. 925), and now a coalition of hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation groups are asking the House to follow suit.

“Passage of the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act will not only have wide-ranging ecological benefits but will facilitate outdoor recreation on behalf of millions of Americans, strengthening conservation funding streams for years to come,” said the groups.

The coalition is asking the House to take up the legislation as passed by the Senate and make no changes.

The ACE Act:

  • Reauthorizes the North American Wetlands Conservation Act at $60M annually through Fiscal Year 2025. The Act has improved over 30 million acres of wetlands, making it one of the nation’s most effective voluntary conservation programs.
  • Establishes a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-led task force to address the spread of chronic wasting disease.
  • Codifies the National Fish Habitat Partnership. Since 2006, the Partnership has overseen over 840 projects to benefit fish habitat and populations.
  • Reauthorizes the Chesapeake Bay Program at $90M through Fiscal Year 2025.

The coalition’s letter to the House is available HERE.

Sportsmen and Women: Rolling Back Clean Water Act Will Harm Habitat

EPA undermines protections for wetlands and streams

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency today announced a final decision to redefine which waters are eligible for Clean Water Act protections, leaving important habitat for fish and waterfowl vulnerable to pollution and significant harm.

Speaking at the National Association of Home Builders conference, Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he would be rolling back the 2015 Clean Water rule.

“This announcement flies in the face of all the hunters and fishermen who have contacted the EPA saying they oppose this decision,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “These rollbacks undermine the intent of the Clean Water Act, which has a proven track record of protecting America’s waters and supporting healthy habitat.”

The new rule will leave roughly half of the nation’s wetlands and almost one out of five of its stream miles without federal protection from pollution. In drier western states, as many of 90 percent of stream miles will not be protected from being polluted.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, creating a federal regulatory floor for pollution control across the country, as well as a partnership with states to address the many threats to our nation’s waters. This was important because states had not had the financial or political resources necessary to ensure clean water. Now the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are asserting that for all of the streams and wetlands they will no longer protect, states could step in, if they want, even as the agencies acknowledge that many states won’t have the resources to do so.

In a national poll, 93 percent of hunters and anglers say they believe the Clean Water Act has benefited the country. Additionally, 80 percent of sportsmen and women said Clean Water Act protections should apply to headwater streams and wetlands. Additionally, 92 percent believe that we should strengthen or maintain current clean water standards, not relax them.

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WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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