Rarely a day goes by that some newspaper or magazine or TV news program doesn’t have a story on the hypoxic or “dead” zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Each time one of those articles or TV clips appears, those who farm in the Mississippi River Basin more than likely get another black eye for allowing “excessive” amounts of plant nutrients to flow into the river and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s why the announcement of a new initiative focusing on water quality improvement in the Mississippi River Basin and the northern Gulf of Mexico by conservation groups, farm organizations and a major agricultural supplier could be good news for farmers and landowners.

“The Mississippi River is an ecological treasure and an economic powerhouse,” says Michael Reuter, who oversees The Nature Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership, which was created to help advance conservation of the world’s major river systems, including the Mississippi.

“This new effort will help show how we can make farming and conservation in the Mississippi River Basin more compatible so that nature and people alike will benefit from improved water quality and enhanced wildlife habitat,” said Reuter, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy’s U.S. Central Region.

Besides The Nature Conservancy, the new initiative includes the National Audubon Society, Delta Wildlife, the Iowa Soybean Association and Monsanto as its partners. Besides technical support, Monsanto is providing more than $5 million in funding for the initiative.

Scientists estimate the hypoxic zone typically encompasses an area of nearly 5,800 square miles in the Gulf that stretches from the Texas-Louisiana border to the mouth of the Mississippi River. It is often referred to as a dead zone because oxygen levels within the zone are said to be too low to support marine life.

EPA has set a goal of reducing the five-year running average size of the zone to less than 2,000 square miles. Current agency officials have said they prefer a voluntary program, but, as most farmers know, EPA may be changing directions with the change in administrations in the months ahead.

The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Soybean Association and Delta Wildlife are all working collaboratively with farmers to remove nutrients and sediment from agricultural runoff in the Mississippi River Basin. The National Audubon Society is working with homeowners to improve wildlife habitat and the quality of water entering the Mississippi River.

Representatives of Delta Wildlife, the Stoneville, Miss.-based conservation group, will have one of the more intensively managed projects in the initiative. Delta Wildlife's goal is to install best management practices on 1,000 sites across the 4 million acres of cropland in the Delta region of northwest Mississippi.

The best management practices will be designed to reduce off-site movement of nutrients and sediments while providing secondary environmental benefits in the form of improved fish and wildlife habitat and water conservation, according to Trey Cooke, Delta Wildlife’s executive director and one of the project managers for the new initiative.

“Every farm is different, which is why we will be working with so many different sites,” said Cooke, who worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before joining Delta Wildlife. “We hope to be able to take the information we learn at these sites and help transfer that to our own and to farmers in other regions.”

The Nature Conservancy, meanwhile, will conduct a three-year conservation pilot in four watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River basin. Those include the Root River in southeastern Minnesota, the Pecatonica River in southern Wisconsin, the Boone River in northern Iowa and the Mackinaw River in central Illinois.

Reuter said the conservancy will work with local partners, including farmers, in those watersheds to implement and study conservation techniques that best lower nutrient and sediment concentrations by reducing runoff from agricultural landscapes.

“Through this project, The Nature Conservancy will seek to determine which tools work best in a larger, sub-watershed system and will then communicate findings to crop producers to guide their farm stewardship decisions,” he noted.

The Iowa Soybean Association will be working with The Nature Conservancy and conducting research on paired, micro watersheds in the Boone and Raccoon rivers in central Iowa. The Boone River travels 100 miles and the Raccoon River 200 miles through central Iowa before connecting with the Des Moines River, which runs into the Mississippi near Keokuk, Iowa.

The group will also coordinate conservation outreach in those watersheds, which includes monitoring, measurement and evaluation of on-farm resources and environmental outcomes.

“Farmers are emerging in key leadership roles through their investments, and by participating in the planning and implementation of practices that perform environmentally. It’s our goal to support them and help them make meaningful progress,” said Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs at the Iowa Soybean Association.

“Our goal is to use science — research and data — to systematically develop and implement a suite of management techniques that help production agriculture measurably improve stewardship while maintaining or increasing profitability.”

“Our members are strong believers in the need for environmental stewardship,” said John Heisdorffer, a farmer from Keota, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Soybean Association’s board of directors. “But they also want to follow practices because the data shows they’re profitable.”

Representatives of the Audubon Society said the effort will complement its broader Mississippi Initiative.

“At least 40 percent of North American waterfowl and 60 percent of North America’s bird species depend on the Mississippi River as a vital migration corridor,” says Audubon’s Roger Still. “The basin supports 25 percent of all fish species in North America and provides critical habitat for many rare, threatened or endangered plants and animals.”

That’s why Audubon is working to be part of an effort to foster a sustainable watershed for the entire the Mississippi Basin, which drains 41 percent of the continental United States. The river itself flows 2,320 miles through the heartland of the country.

“We are committed to engaging individuals to take action in their own lives to help address the water quality and habitat issues in the watershed,” says Still, vice president of Audubon’s Mississippi River Initiative.

“We’re proud to work on this bold conservation initiative which we believe offers a sustainable vision for agricultural landscapes wherein farmers can support our world’s growing needs for food, fiber and fuel in ways that not only preserve water quality, but also support diverse and abundant wildlife populations,” said Jerry Steiner, executive vice president at Monsanto.

“We believe this initiative can serve as an important stepping stone toward the goal of preserving natural resources and wildlife in the Mississippi River Basin for future generations.”

Data collected from the projects will be reported annually and is expected to generate novel approaches which can be implemented more broadly across rural landscapes. Crop producers will be directly involved in the respective projects. Steiner said findings will be shared with farmers regularly so that “they can observe and adapt cultural practices that preserve water quality and improve wildlife habitat.”

Monsanto and its conservation partners, along with grower associations including the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association also have announced that they will be forming a Mississippi River Farm Nutrient Working Group. The group expects to engage other agricultural-related interests, government leaders and other interested organizations in this group.

The group is expected to engage additional experts in an effort to share findings and best practices, raise awareness and broaden restoration efforts along the Mississippi River. The working group will also discuss what might be needed to help farmers implement stewardship projects at a higher rate and see what can be done to provide incentives or enabling policies to assist them in doing this, says Steiner.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com