World Resources Institute WRI

Improving Water Quality - A Review of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) To Target U.S. Farm Conservation Funds

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This paper provides an assessment of the USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), a promising new approach to achieving cleaner water in agriculturally dominated watersheds in the United States. The initiative concentrates a portion of taxpayer-supported conservation funds in high-priority, targeted watersheds, which we found to be a better strategy than the prevailing approach of thinly dispersing funds across the rural landscape. With a few mid-course adjustments, the initiative could help achieve measurable improvements in many local streams and rivers. Our analysis and recommendations can help USDA and its many partners—state agricultural and water quality agencies, watershed groups, universities, and farm and environmental non-governmental organizations—as they strive to demonstrate environmental outcomes with ever-shrinking taxpayer funds.

Executive Summary

Historically, federal conservation programs have focused on solving environmental and natural resource problems on individual farms. While improvements have been made in water quality and wildlife habitat at the farm scale, landscape-scale environmental benefits in streams, lakes,and bays, for example, are less commonly documented. Excess nutrients (nitrogen, N, and phosphorus, P) continue to impair thousands of waterways, and eutrophication leads to hypoxia (low oxygen levels that harm aquatic life) or dead zones in water bodies around the country.

Currently, approximately 10 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) conservation budget is spent on targeting conservation efforts in high priority areas to achieve environmental outcomes at the landscape scale (i.e., across a geographic region facing similar water quality issues such as a watershed). However, focusing more conservation efforts in this manner, as opposed to the predominant approach, which disperses rather than concentrates funds across farms in each state, has the potential to achieve greater environmental improvements per dollar spent. In 2009, NRCS launched the Landscape Conservation Initiatives to more effectively address priority environmental and natural resource concerns by focusing on the most important geographic areas. These initiatives hold great promise for cost effectively achieving significant outcomes at the landscape scale.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) reviewed the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), one of NRCS’s largest water quality-focused Landscape Conservation Initiatives to determine how well it was designed to achieve measurable improvements in water quality. WRI selected MRBI because of its focus on local water bodies in the Mississippi River Basin that drain into the Gulf of Mexico, the country’s largest water body suffering from hypoxia.

MRBI is a Cooperative Conservation Partnerships Initiative (CCPI) that strives to accelerate adoption of conservation practices to achieve landscape-scale outcomes in high priority locations by leveraging financial and technical resources from project partners. Such partners include state and local agricultural and environmental agencies, universities, soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs), and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Given that it is too soon to evaluate the achievement of measurable improvements in water quality, WRI focused its analysis on the design of MRBI and the awarded proposals from 2010 and 2011.

WRI reviewed the literature and interviewed experts3 to produce six factors deemed to be indicators of effective targeting: stakeholder and producer buy-in; presence of specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, timebound, and quantitative (SMART-Q) goals; geographic targeting; monitoring and evaluation; cost effectiveness; and adaptive management. WRI then developed between one and four criteria for each of the six targeting factors to assess the degree of fulfillment of each factor. Most, but not all, of the targeting factors and their criteria reflect what NRCS requires or encourages in its request for proposals (RFPs) for MRBI projects.Cost effectiveness was not reflected in the RFPs, and adaptive management was mentioned indirectly.

WRI reviewed MRBI at the programmatic level and project level for the presence of these targeting factors and their associated criteria. WRI assigned the following ratings based on the degree to which MRBI, as a whole, addressed the factor’s criteria, where—

  • 5 = Exemplary. All criteria for the factor are met.
  • 4 = Good. Most criteria for the factor are met.
  • 3 = Fair. Some criteria for the factor are met.
  • 2 = Poor. Few criteria for the factor are met.
  • 1 = Very Poor. No criteria for the factor are met.

To assign the ratings, WRI reviewed MRBI’s available literature (Web sites, press releases, annual reports, and RFPs), evaluated 60 percent of the 2010 and 2011 project proposals, and interviewed NRCS staff associated with the initiative.

To assess how effectively MRBI is designed to target available funds to achieve landscape-scale water quality outcomes, WRI defined effective targeting. WRI concluded that effective targeting, in general, and also specifically by MRBI, would result in achievement of improved landscape-scale water quality outcomes associated with reduced nutrient and sediment pollution, such as reductions in in-stream N, P, and sediment concentrations. Given that press releases and RFPs for MRBI state that the initiative was developed to address local and Gulf of Mexico water quality problems and that measurable conservation results would be evaluated on a watershed basis, WRI believes this vision of effective targeting is also shared by NRCS.

WRI commends NRCS’s efforts to begin focusing conservation funds to maximize water quality outcomes through this partnership-based, targeted watershed project approach. Overall, MRBI received an average rating of “fair” across the six factors we used to rate how likely the program’s design is to achieve improved landscape-scale water quality outcomes for nutrient and sediment pollution. MRBI excelled at geographically targeting conservation activities, receiving a “good rating.” It received “fair” ratings for including stakeholders and producers in MRBI, for setting SMART-Q goals, for measuring and evaluating progress, and for reflecting principles of adaptive management. It received a “poor” rating for cost effectiveness. These ratings are described in more detail throughout this report.

Based on these findings, WRI has identified specific recommendations for MRBI that may assist NRCS and its project partners in achieving measurable improvements in landscape-scale water quality outcomes.


Key Findings

WRI has identified specific recommendations for MRBI that may assist NRCS and its project partners in achieving measurable improvements in landscape-scale water quality outcomes.

Stakeholder and Producer Buy-in

  1. Clarify which stakeholders are involved in what aspects of MRBI.
  2. Enable agricultural producers and rural landowners to participate in the development of MRBI and the projects.
  3. Prioritize awards to future projects that leverage and formalize significant resources from non-USDA sources.


  1. Lead by example and write a clear and SMART-Q goal statement for MRBI that aims to achieve landscapescale outcomes and require projects to do the same.
  2. Prioritize future MRBI funds to those projects that aim to achieve already existing landscape-scale policy objectives.

Geographic Targeting

  1. Provide “targeting narratives” for the MRBI-designated focus areas and the MRBI project watersheds.

Monitoring and Evaluation

  1. Improve leadership and accountability for landscape-scale outcomes.
  2. Establish advisory teams for water quality monitoring, metrics, and modeling.
  3. Prioritize projects with already existing baseline monitoring data or that propose to use a paired watershed approach.
  4. Consider requiring watershed-based planning to help ensure attainment of improved landscape-scale water quality outcomes.

Cost Effectiveness

  1. Require projects to provide at least a narrative discussion about the cost effectiveness of their targeted watershed projects, and accelerate improvement of methods to quantitatively estimate cost effectiveness of practices and projects.

Adaptive Management

  1. Develop a formal framework on adaptive management to more effectively implement MRBI, and require projects to include plans for adaptive management in their proposals.

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