Collaborative watershed management and action-research in the Minnesota river basin.

More than a century and a half of agricultural development in the Upper Midwest of the United States has created one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. Today, however, questions are being raised about this area’s sustainability in terms of profitability and the impact on human and environmental resources.

To expand production in the Minnesota river basin (MRB), wetlands have been drained and converted to croplands; extensive tile drainage networks and ditch systems have been developed to move water more efficiently off the land and into stream channels; annual crops have largely replaced tall grass prairie species in the uplands, and native riparian forests along stream banks and in floodplains; and stream channels have been modified to convey floodwater and reduce flood damage to crops and farming communities.

To assess and address the impact of these ecological and hydrological imbalances, an interdisciplinary and participatory watershed management programme was launched in MRB. This uses a collaborative research and education approach to guide the identification, evaluation and development of alternative cropping and management strategies that incorporate trees, woody vegetation and herbaceous perennials into the landscape.

Alternatives to annual cropping are being considered, to provide farmers with options that can compete financially with current production systems, on their own or through payments for the environmental services that such practices provide. Stakeholders are involved in a number of ways: programme objectives are largely the result of meetings, conferences and other activities involving diverse stakeholders, such as landowners, local citizen groups, local, state and federal government agencies; and partnerships have been formed with concerned citizen groups, agency personnel, agroforestry cooperatives, university faculty and individual farmers.

Because farmers are expected to adopt the land uses and management practices evaluated, learning groups have been set up that include farmers who have already implemented agroforestry and perennial cropping systems. These learning groups allow stakeholders to interact and exchange and share ideas, in order to design sustainable and profitable land management options that can easily be adopted by landowners.

Small demonstration areas are being established as pilot projects, and field research and monitoring are quantifying the production outcomes and hydrologic and water quality changes associated with different cropping systems. Changes in vegetative cover will be simulated for upland watersheds and riparian areas; different scenarios of change will be investigated to determine the effects of scale and landscape position on project objectives.

Hydrologic modelling provides information for economic evaluations of downstream impacts. On- and off-site costs and benefits are being examined from the perspectives of individual farmers and broader stakeholders in the river basin (externalities). As farmers may have to change their farming approach, new equipment costs are compared with the benefits derived from new crops. Regarding externalities, downstream impacts need to be quantified and valued, and assessment of markets for the various products derived from alternative perennial cropping systems is an integral component of the project. Workshops are planned for land managers and farmers to discuss economic and policy issues that constrain implementation. Educational materials that are appropriate for different audiences will be prepared.

This programme is expected to promote desirable land-use changes that diversify the agricultural landscape, sustain the rural economy, enhance hydrologic storage and function, and improve water quality in MRB. The key to this approach is that landowners, technical service providers, policy-makers and other interested parties/stakeholders have been involved from the outset.

The initial learning groups are expected to expand into a network working to improve and adapt improved management practices, as has already occurred with the earlier groups. Other expected results are: expanded and continuing diversification of land use and management; better understanding of the watershed benefits derived from improved land use; more involved and informed citizens; and, ultimately, policy changes to support sustainable land-use practices.

Adapted from K. Brooks. 2006. Restoring hydrological function of altered landscape: an integrated approach to watershed management. In L. Tennyson and P.C. Zingari. Watershed Management: Water Resources for the Future. Proceedings of the International Conference, Sassari, Sardinia, Italy, 22 to 24 October 2003. Watershed Management and Sustainable Mountain Development Working Paper No. 9. Rome, FAO, FORC Department.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007