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Working with Agriculture on Clean Water

Our work in the Paw Paw River watershed is one of many projects designed to improve water quality and quantity in the rivers that flow into the Great Lakes.


Working With Farmers in Pawpaw

Farmers in Pawpaw change practices to improve freshwater.

Watch a video about sustainable solutions.

If you’re a fan of apple pie, blueberry cobbler or a delicate pinot noir, you may want to consider a pilgrimage to the Paw Paw River watershed in southwest Michigan. That’s where they grow a lot of the fruit that goes into these earthly delights. But growing fruit and other food crops can put a strain on our precious freshwater resources.

The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with farmers, the Van Buren Conservation District, the The Coca-Cola Foundation and Michigan State University to protect and improve water quality and quantity in the Paw Paw River watershed.

“It’s crucial for us to help farmers minimize the impacts they have on rivers and streams while maintaining a productive farming economy,” said Colleen Forestieri, conservation technician for the Van Buren Conservation District.

This year, the Conservancy and Conservation District pioneered a strategy for increasing the watershed’s groundwater recharge. In conventional farming, fields lie barren after harvest, causing water to run off instead of soaking into the soil, recharging groundwater supplies. So the Conservation District provides financial incentives to farmers who implement conservation practices, basing incentives on gallons recharged – instead of farm acreage, a more common criterion – to reward genuine ecological improvement, since farms impact watersheds differently depending on soil type and location.

A Groundwater Recharge Calculator that the Conservancy worked with Michigan State University to develop helps conservationists measure the impacts of different farming practices on groundwater recharge so they can see in advance where changes will have the most impact.

The Conservancy and The Coca-Cola Foundation, which operates a Paw Paw facility and supports conservation in watersheds where it works, help fund the incentives.

By this fall, three farmers had received incentives, putting the team halfway to its goal of 100 million gallons by 2014.

Bruce Karas, Vice President, Environment & Sustainability for Coca-Cola Refreshments, says that: “Water is our most important and precious ingredient wherever we operate around the world.” Their aim is to not only reduce and recycle the water they use, but to replenish the watershed.

Besides addressing water quantity issues, such as groundwater recharge, the Conservancy also works to improve water quality. Conventional agriculture can affect water quality through nutrient and sediment runoff from farm fields.

Conservation practices include no-till or reduced-tillage farming, planting methods that leave crop debris on the soil, minimizing runoff; cover crops, off-season crops that keep the soil in place; and buffer strips, native plants along waterways that catch runoff and sediment before they reach the water.

“We used to have clear, cold water streams in this area that were great for trout,” Forestieri said. “With all the sediment in the streams now, the water is warmer and less hospitable to trout. If we can help farmers keep more of their soil on the land without losing revenue, it will be good for the rivers, the trout and the profitability of their farms.”

The Conservancy’s work in the Paw Paw River watershed is one of many projects designed to improve water quality and quantity in the rivers that flow into the Great Lakes by promoting better land management. What we learn here can be shared and, where appropriate, replicated across the Great Lakes basin.
 

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