NSAC's Blog

New Conservation Initiative Will Combat Dead Zones and Help Keep Waterways Healthy

January 13, 2017

Many farmers live and farm near waterways, and can help protect water quality. Photo credit: USDA NRCS.

Our rivers, lakes, and oceans are teeming with life, and just like the human body they require oxygen to sustain that life and stay healthy. Many waterways in the U.S., however, suffer from hypoxia – a condition in which oxygen levels are depleted to such a degree that fish and other wildlife are stressed or killed. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), incidents of hypoxia increased nearly 30-fold between 1960 and 2010, and were documented in nearly 50 percent of the 647 waterways assessed by NOAA in a recent report.

The Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR), announced last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA), will combat hypoxia in troubled areas, such as the Mississippi River and Great Lakes Basins, by helping landowners pay the cost of building bioreactors and saturated buffers that filter nutrients from tile-drained cropland.

Hypoxia has caused major “dead zones” across the country, including in large systems vital to supporting local wildlife and economic development, like the Gulf of Mexico. Dead zones are caused by the growth and decomposition of algae, which is a result of increased nutrient loading. As part of FSA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), CLEAR will provide targeted practices for that help farmers limit nutrient runoff from their lands, thereby improving water quality and combatting hypoxia.

USDA estimates that since its creation in 1985, CRP has reduced nitrogen and phosphorus from fields that would have otherwise entered lakes, streams, and rivers by 95 and 85 percent, respectively. Within CRP, these practices are available through the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP), which pays farmers to install partial field conservation practices on their land. Unlike general CRP sign-ups – which are available to producers only on an occasionally basis – CCRP is open to any qualified land at any time of year.

Within CCRP, as well as within the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), FSA supports participating farmers in maximizing water quality and other environmental benefits through the use of Signing Incentive Payments (SIPs) and Practice Incentive Payments (PIPs). These tools support the enrollment of particularly sensitive lands, such as riparian areas and critical wildlife habitat.

Bioreactors and Saturated Buffers

CLEAR targets hypoxia through two distinct measures: the building of bioreactors and installing of saturated buffers. FSA defines denitrifying bioreactors as “a structure that uses a carbon source, such as wood chips, to reduce the concentration of nitrate nitrogen in subsurface agricultural drainage flow via enhanced denitrification.” In plainer terms, these bioreactors function by directing water flows through tile drains into a bioreactor, which then treats the water before releasing it into the drainage ditch.

FSA defines saturated buffers as “a vegetated buffer (riparian buffer and/or filter strip) in which the water table is artificially raised by diverting much of the water from a subsurface drainage system along the buffer to reduce nitrate loading to surface water via enhanced denitrification.” Like a bioreactor, a saturated buffer removes a substantial portion of the nitrogen from agricultural drainage water; however, rather than the water flowing underground into a structure, the tile drain takes the water above ground before releasing it into a vegetative filter.

If you’re having drainage issues in your property, contact Naperville drainage services to identify the problem and determine a cost-effective, long-lasting solution.

Eligible Land

Through CLEAR, FSA is targeting existing CCRP land that is enrolled in the Filter Strip (CP-21) and the Riparian Buffer (CP-22) practices, as well as land that is not currently enrolled in CCRP. All other pre-existing CCRP eligibility criteria must be met.


CLEAR may cover up to 90 percent of the cost to install these new practices through incentives and cost share. The following payments are available through the new initiative:

  • Cost share, or reimbursement, of up to 50 percent of the practice costs.
  • Practice incentives of up to 40 percent of the eligible cost, not to exceed $1,500 per bioreactor on existing CCRP filter strips and riparian buffers.
  • Practice incentives of up to 40 percent of the eligible establishment cost for newly enrolled bioreactors or saturated buffers on filter strips.

New applicants as well as CCRP participants who have already enrolled eligible land in CP-21 or CP-22 should contact their local FSA office to determine whether their enrolled acres are suitable for installation of a saturated buffer or denitrifying bioreactor.

Additional Support for Wildlife and Pollinators

The announcement of the CLEAR initiative was also accompanied by an announcement that FSA would increase acreage caps for certain CCRP initiatives. This increase includes up to 700,000 new acres for State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), an initiative that restores high-priority wildlife habitat, tailored to the states’ specific needs. Additionally, FSA will increase acreage caps for wetland restoration by 300,000 acres and pollinator habitat enrollments by 100,000 acres.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauds FSA for expanding opportunities for farmers and landowners to reduce nutrient runoff, expand wildlife habitat, and protect other critical natural resources through CCRP enrollment.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs

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