Reducing Phosphorus Loads from Agriculture: Creating a Pay-for-Performance Program Using Field-Specific Information

2013 - Present
Team Leader
Dr. Jonathan Winsten
Winrock International Institute
Project Website

This project will lead to reductions of harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes by reducing levels of phosphorus in basin streams and rivers. The team will do this by designing and piloting a novel pay-for-performance program that will aggregate the conservation actions of farmers in a watershed and create a mechanism to reward those farmers for the amount of phosphorus they remove from surface waters. Through this work the team will create a series of organizing, modeling, negotiating, contracting, and assessment tools that will allow others to create their own “pay-for-performance” conservation program. The team will pilot the tools they create in the upper reaches of the Milwaukee River watershed.

Building on their relationships with farmers in the pilot area, the team will facilitate the development of a farmer-led watershed council that will take on a leadership role in delivering phosphorus reductions. Working with and through the council, the team will establish field-level baseline conditions (using APEX and SWAT models, and producer interviews), assess the cost effectiveness of status quo conservation, and create a portfolio of possible actions for each participating farmer to take to reduce phosphorus. The team will design the structure of the pay-for-performance program that will identify what level of phosphorus removal can be attained, and will design simple contracts for each farmer/producer. The team will execute the contracts for phosphorus reduction on 25 farms for each of two growing seasons, based on the actions selected by the farmers.

Changes in phosphorus exports from participating farms will be measured through a network of in-stream and edge-of-field sampling locations. The team will use this monitoring information to refine its water quality models, its field assessments and its producer contracts. They will use the lessons learned to prepare a detailed tool kit for others to use available water quality models, coupled with minimal monitoring, to build pay-for-performance projects elsewhere in the basin.

An external advisory committee will guide the project and ensure that it is relevant to other Great Lakes watersheds, useful to those point sources potentially facing tighter phosphorus discharge limitations, and understood by Great Lakes leaders. The team will present the project at professional conferences, organize field days to introduce municipal officials to the strategy, and create a website and social media presence.

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