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Assessing the Environmental Effects of Conservation Practices

NIFA awarded more than $1 million to two land-grant universities as part of the Agency's commitment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP). NIFA is one of the lead agencies in this multi-agency effort to quantify the environmental benefits of conservation practices used by private landowners participating in selected USDA conservation programs and to improve management understanding of the widespread benefits of agricultural conservation. 

A team of investigators led by North Carolina State University (NCSU) will conduct the principal CEAP synthesis and develop a comprehensive framework to evaluate 13 previously funded watershed projects (see below) to better understand the influence of conservation practices and maintenance. A second team led by the University of Idaho will characterize these 13 CEAP watersheds for their benefit to the land as well as to the results of those benefits to the surrounding communities. NCSU and the University of Idaho received $600,000 and $420,328 for their project, respectively.

The 2002 Farm Bill's Farm Security and Rural Investment Act increased the amount of funding for conservation programs by nearly 80 percent, compared to the 1996 Farm Bill. CEAP addresses the USDA's need to quantify the impacts and benefits of these nationwide conservation practices.

NIFA contributes to the Watershed Assessment Studies component of CEAP by leading a joint competitive grants program for CEAP with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and participating in the coordination of activities through the CEAP steering committee.  NIFA and NRCS have jointly awarded $7.8 million (including approximately $2.3 million from NRCS) for watershed studies during fiscal years 2004 through 2006. The NIFA CEAP Competitive Grants Program is a component of the National Integrated Water Quality Program (NIWQP). A map of funded projects and fact sheets with more information on the individual watersheds are available.

The NIFA-NRCS CEAP Competitive Grants Program has funded 13 watershed-scale integrated (research and outreach) projects that evaluate the effects of conservation practices on water resources.  This program focuses on understanding how the suite of conservation practices, the timing of these activities, and the spatial distribution of these practices throughout a watershed influence their effectiveness for achieving locally defined water quality goals. 

This program also conducts research to evaluate social and economic factors that influence implementation and maintenance of practices and outreach education, critical to transferring knowledge to farmers, ranchers, community leaders, and other stakeholders to improve practice effectiveness.

The four questions addressed by the 13 previously funded watershed scale studies focused on the following:

  • Within the hydrologic and geomorphic setting of a watershed, how do the timing, location, and suite of implemented agricultural conservation practices affect surface and/or ground water quality at the watershed scale?
  • What are the relationships among conservation practices implemented in a given watershed with respect to their impact on water quality?  Are the effects additive, contradictory, or independent?  
  • What social and economic factors within the study watershed either facilitate or impede implementation or proper maintenance of conservation practices?
  • What is the optimal set or suite of conservation practices and what is their optimal placement within the watershed in order to achieve water quality goals or to provide acceptable reductions in water quality impairments?


CEAP includes three primary components, a National Assessment that is broadest in both geographical and topical scope, Watershed Assessment Studies focused on in-depth research and modeling at the water shed scale, and Bibliographies and Literature Reviews including dynamic bibliographies.


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