How Cover Crops Can Solve Nutrient Pollution Problems

The National Wildlife Federation looks to engage with utilities in efforts to reduce nutrient pollution from farm runoff in watersheds.
How Cover Crops Can Solve Nutrient Pollution Problems
Elizabeth Lillard

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For many clean-water utilities, the possibility of stricter nutrient removal requirements looms on the horizon. New total maximum daily loadings for water bodies and increasing concern over algae buildups are driving new measures to curtail phosphorus and nitrogen.

But point-source discharges are only part of the issue. Much of the nutrient loading to streams and lakes comes from nonpoint sources, especially agricultural runoff. What’s the best strategy for dealing with the overall problem?

One organization taking a proactive approach is the National Wildlife Federation. In 2013, the federation began a concerted effort to encourage sustainable agriculture in the Upper Mississippi River Basin, specifically through its Cover Crop Champions program.

At the same time, NWF has begun to engage utilities, linking them with farmers to help spread the message about the benefits to area water quality through cover crops. The premise is that treatment facilities can significantly reduce costs by working with growers and producers to protect source waters and surrounding watersheds.

Elizabeth Lillard, an agricultural program specialist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is spearheading the federation’s utility engagement program and is eager to share the message of cover crops with municipal water and wastewater utilities. She talked about the program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What is the NWF program and how do you see it connecting with water and wastewater utilities?

Lillard: The objective is to get utilities and the agricultural community working in harmony to help improve source water and address nutrient pollution problems. Utilities often don’t have the resources to meet nutrient removal requirements, and we believe that by taking a holistic watershed view, money invested in nutrient control will have a bigger payoff.

We started the program in 2013 and are ramping it up. Our specialty is agricultural communications. We know how to start the conversation between municipalities and agricultural groups. We take a broader view than governments or watershed groups. We are starting with four or five utilities, helping them engage the communities at large, but homing in on farmers and the agricultural community.

TPO: Why is the National Wildlife Federation involving itself in source water quality?

Lillard: NWF works on a variety of issues. We have a considerable number of our staff working on water quality. Our agricultural program has wildlife benefits — cropland can take away habitat, grasslands benefit wildlife. Clean water benefits all creatures.

TPO: What are cover crops?

Lillard: Cover crops are non-commodity crops planted between rows of crops or on bare fields during fallow periods, usually after harvest and before spring planting, to prevent soil erosion and loss of nutrients. Cover crops improve farm profitability by increasing yields, improving soil health through increased soil porosity and infiltration, and reducing fertilizer and weed management costs. They also retain nutrients that would otherwise leave the field via runoff or leaching, making those nutrients available for the next crop. In addition, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it safely in soils. Overall, cover crops can protect water quality and enhance wildlife habitat.

TPO: Please explain the Cover Crop Champions program.

Lillard: Our Cover Crop Champions program covers all states in the Upper Mississippi Basin, including Ohio. Champions are farmers and local outreach professionals — people from an organization or county — who pair together to reach out to at least 150 farmers and 10 crop advisers per year, communicating the cover crop story. Their effectiveness is measured by field and farm data, and things like the number of presentations or media interviews. The program started in 2013, and we have partnered with more than 60 Cover Crop Champions.

TPO: How would you characterize the program’s effectiveness?

Lillard: A survey conducted by the Lincoln Extension Center indicated that for every 400 farmers reached by our cover crop program, about 50 will try it. That’s 12 percent. Since 2013, we’ve reached more than 19,000 farmers with the cover crop message, and more than 300,000 acres of cover crops have been planted.

TPO: To what extent are communications necessary to the program’s success?

Lillard: As mentioned, our team specializes in agricultural communications. We identify leaders in the farming community who are employing cover cropping and other sustainable practices. Through outreach education and communications training, we help them go back to their communities to spread the word about cover crops. We understand that farmer-to-farmer communication is the most effective. In many instances, farmers will help their neighbors work through barriers and develop sustainable practices for their farms.

TPO: How is your program involving municipal water and wastewater utilities, and why is their assistance important?

Lillard: Water facilities treat for many contaminates, but for rural communities nitrate is consistently a problem, often due to the mismanagement of fertilizers and animal manure on private lands. Utilities can significantly reduce the cost of water treatment and facility upgrades by working with growers and producers to better manage nutrients and protect source waters and the surrounding watersheds.

Starting this fall, NWF will directly engage with a few utilities that are struggling with nitrate pollution. We will help them develop source water protection programs. NWF hosted two webinars in 2016 as part of our utility engagement program. PDFs of the presentations are available upon request.

TPO: Are success stories starting to appear?

Lillard: Yes. Oconomowoc and Waupaca, Wisconsin, are communities that have developed their own programs. In Oconomowoc, the wastewater treatment plant is spearheading a local effort to involve the entire watershed in monitoring and controlling nonpoint source pollution and sediment erosion. It’s called the Oconomowoc Watershed Protection program. Waupaca has cropping agreements with a couple of farmers. The city hires a crop consultant to work with the farmers to develop plans to keep nitrate runoff low. The city started these agreements in the 1990s, and has not had to remove nitrates at the treatment plant for years.

TPO: Is there a reason why Wisconsin communities seem progressive in taking watershed-based approaches?

Lillard: Utilities in Wisconsin can work with farmers as part of their permit compliance plans using adaptive management, an alternative option for dealing with phosphorus. Most utilities don’t have that option, so they need alternative strategies. Even if a utility has the adaptive management option, our program helps improve outreach effectiveness to farmers to get them to adopt practices like cover crops that dramatically reduce nonpoint pollution. We are communicating with them and will draw on their experiences to help shape our program.

TPO: Are there any other exemplary programs that deserve mention?

Lillard: The city of Griswold is one of 15 Iowa Source Water Protection Pilot Projects, part of the Iowa DNR Source Water Protection program. This is a much more recent activity. The city coordinated a Source Water Protection Team, investigated the groundwater in the area, and identified nearby farmers. The team has since worked with others in the agricultural community and has started planting cover crops in critical runoff zones.

TPO: What should a municipality do if it is interested in working with NWF?

Lillard: We encourage utilities to get involved. They can contact NWF by calling me at 734/887-7134, or emailing me at We’re happy to answer their questions and help them become knowledgeable about the issue and our program.


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