By Dustin Renwick
Nutrient pollution, an excess of nitrogen or phosphorous, costs the country at least $2.2 billion annually. Excess nutrients reaching our waterways spark algae blooms that overpower otherwise healthy ecosystems. In turn, those blooms can contaminate drinking water, kill aquatic species, and create negative impacts for water-based recreation and tourism.
Members of a public-private partnership announced a prize competition in fall 2013 to collect innovative ideas for addressing nutrient overloads. The competition asked innovators to identify next-generation solutions from across the world that could help with reduction, mediation, and elimination of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water.
Criteria for judging included technical feasibility and accompanying strategic plans for making solutions available and useful. Innovators who met the challenge requirements were each awarded $5,000. They and their winning ideas are:
- Aaron Ruesch and Theresa Nelson, with the Bureau of Water Quality in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, proposed combining several data sources into a decision support tool for rapid watershed planning – in some cases, within a day. He used equations to estimate runoff, erosion and soil loss on farms. “All these things together help give us an index of vulnerability,” Ruesch says. The software means local watershed groups can “get the plans out the door quicker to get boots on the ground to implement actual practices.” Ruesch says the money will allow for more outreach and training across the state in the coming year.
- David White, president of Ecosystem Services Exchange, proposed a real-time management system that would control water flow and nutrient loading in a field’s tile-drained water. This system would provide quantified evidence of nutrient reductions. “We believe we can reduce nitrogen by 25 to 50 percent,” White says. He is currently discussing a potential test project with officials in Charles City, Iowa. Phase two of White’s solution would pilot a nutrient trading program based on the reductions. “If we can create an asset class for farmers through water quality markets, we can reduce nutrients entering the waterways at a much lower cost.”
- Jon Winsten, an agricultural economist and program officer at Winrock International, proposed a pay-for-performance incentive approach, called “model at the farm, measure at the watershed.” Science-based models quantify nutrient losses on individual fields. “Farmers have unique knowledge of their lands,” Winsten says. “By offering a performance-based incentive, then farmers are motivated to find the most appropriate and most cost-effective actions for their specific farms and fields. That’s the most efficient way to get conservation on the ground.” Farmers would receive secondary incentive payments when their entire watershed met reduction goals.
Winners may be part of ongoing discussions by federal and private partners to continue to bring innovative solutions to bear on the problem of excess nutrients in waterways.
About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.