By ?STEVE KARNOWSKI
Associated Press Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Farmers in the Upper Mississippi River basin have made significant progress in reducing sediment, fertilizer and pesticide runoff but need to do more to cut pollution to acceptable levels, according to a major U.S. Department of Agriculture study.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday the study establishes that good conservation practices do indeed work. It’s the first among several studies the USDA plans to release evaluating the effectiveness of conservation practices on major watersheds.
“First and foremost we found that farmers in this area are stepping up in a significant way to embrace conservation,” Vilsack said in a phone interview with The Associated Press before the report’s release on Wednesday.
The region’s most critical conservation concern is excessive runoff of nitrogen fertilizer, the report said. The region’s corn crop, in particular, uses large amounts of nitrogen.
About 51 percent of crop acres in the region require more aggressive steps to reduce nitrogen loss, and about 62 percent of the region’s cropland overall requires better management to reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorous, which leaches out of manure and other sources.
The solution, Vilsack said, is better attention to the proper rate, forms, timing and methods of fertilizer application.
On the positive side, the study found use of soil-erosion controls are widespread, and only about 15 percent of cultivated acres still have excessive sediment loss. And it said conservation practices in the region have been highly effective in reducing pesticide runoff.
“When you see the pesticide risk to human health reduced by 48 percent, and only 1 to 2 percent of pesticide actually leaves the field, we know that with more precise application, more rotations and scouting, we can do an even better job of reducing risks associated with pesticides and reassure people about the safety of the food that they’re eating,” Vilsack said.
The Upper Mississippi basin covers about 190,000 square miles, including large swaths of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, as well as smaller parts of South Dakota, Michigan and Indiana. It accounts for more than 40 percent of the U.S. corn harvest and more than a third of the U.S. soybean crop.
“This kind of study allows us to reaffirm to taxpayers that investment in conservation are wise and appropriate uses of their dollars,” he said.
Vilsack said the findings give the USDA reason to be more confident of the value of its other upcoming reports, including its study on Chesapeake Bay. Agriculture, including large-scale animal farms, is responsible for about half the pollution entering the bay.
“This should give comfort to those who believe as we do that conservation is a key strategy for cleaning up the bay,” Vilsack said.
Some other studies in the pipeline include the Ohio, Tennessee, Lower Mississippi and Delaware river basis. The USDA plans to release at least a couple more later this year.
Vilsack said proper planning — using targeted tools in concert — is five times more effective in reducing sediment and soil erosion, four times more effective in reducing nitrogen losses and three times more effective in reducing phosphorous runoff, he said.
The project drew applause from Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources in the Ames, Iowa, office of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group. Cox said he hopes lawmakers use it to shape the conservation provisions of the 2012 Farm Bill.
“The project confirms there are extremely effective conservation practices available to farmers that, if they were more widely used, and most importantly, if the right combinations of practices were used together and targeted to the right places, we could go a long way to protecting the water quality in the rover and protecting the gulf,” Cox said.
Fertilizer from the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico, where it fuels algae growth in the summer that depletes the water of oxygen below the levels that can support fish and other aquatic life, Cox said. No one yet knows how the oil spill will affect that, he said.
Given that the gulf will be in a weakened state for some time, Cox said, the report’s findings are even more critical.
“I hope this report leads people to realize that we simply can’t push the land as hard as we’re pushing it without substantially increasing conservation at the same time,” he said.