The Effects of the Conservation Reserve Program on Surface Water Quality
University of Wisconsin--Stout
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The water quality of Lake Menomin has been greatly affected by high nutrient levels. Algal blooms, caused by high total phosphorus levels, are toxic to the environment. Over the summer I worked with an amazing group of undergraduate students to gain a better understanding on the current local and state-wide water quality issues and to research methods of improving the water quality. My partner Emily and I focused our efforts on analyzing the effects of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) on total phosphorus levels in surface water in Wisconsin. The CRP was enacted in 1985 to reduce nutrient levels in surface water and restore water quality. In this program, landowners retire environmentally sensitive farmland. This land is converted into vegetation that provides environmental benefits. The program has had varying impacts and goals throughout its almost 35-year existence but continues to be the largest federal, private-land retirement program that addresses environmental issues caused by agriculture. In our project, we sought to determine whether the CRP is effective at reducing total phosphorus levels in Wisconsin surface water bodies. Throughout the summer, Emily and I used a data analysis program called STATA. This program proved to be useful in exploring and organizing data, creating graphs, and running regressions. The first step we took in becoming familiar with the data was exploring relationships among different variables. We used data from the EPA, USDA, USGS, and several other sources. Our sample period was between 1995 and 2017. We found that the number of acres enrolled in CRP in the Red Cedar Watershed was above Wisconsin’s average enrollment between 1995 and 2012. As the number of acres enrolled in CRP declined over our sample period, total phosphorus increased. We also found that the correlation between CRP acres and total phosphorus was positive. This relationship shows that the CRP is targeting areas of poor water quality. Our results show that an increase in acres enrolled in CRP will lead to a decrease in total phosphorus levels in surface water bodies. Based on this program, when a HUC8 watershed enrolls 1000 acres in CRP, total phosphorus levels will decrease by 27.7% of the mean. The mean total phosphorus levels for all of Wisconsin during our sample period at the HUC8 level was 183 micrograms per liter. This estimate should be taken lightly because total phosphorus levels within a HUC8 vary. We also performed a benefit-cost analysis to determine if the program has been economically efficient. During our sample period, the costs of the program were $848 million and the total recreational benefits were $1.66 billion. This analysis shows that the benefits outweigh the costs. It is important to note that this is a low estimate of the benefits. Taking into account other benefits, including health and housing markets, would potentially increase the benefits of the CRP. Since the early 1990s, the government has been decreasing funding to the CRP and enrollment has been declining; however, as we demonstrated in our research, the program is effective at improving surface water quality. This trend shows that the government should reinvest money into the program. More landowners will be incentivized to retire their farmland which will lead to a reduction of total phosphorus in surface water. Citizens should talk to their state legislators about the effectiveness of the CRP and the importance of supporting polices that aim to create a healthier environment. This program reduces total phosphorus levels in surface water bodies and is economically viable. Cleaning up the lake will take a long-term solution, but each action towards reducing total phosphorus levels in the surface water is one step closer to a cleaner, healthier lake. This summer’s research has challenged me to think critically, be resourceful, and problem solve. I have enjoyed working with my partner Emily and faculty mentor Zach Raff. I am impressed with the research Emily and I have accomplished and how much I have learned. I feel more confident as a researcher in understanding the research process, and I feel more informed as college student in knowing how to apply the material I have learned in my studies to hands-on experiences.
Environmental Economics and Policy major at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign