Why it's time for a new federal river program (MRRRI) that supports farmers

by Trevor Russell

Kernza, a perennial form of wheat, keeps soil and nutrients in the land and out of the river. Perennial crops represent just one of the many innovative clean-water strategies a new federal initiative could fund. (Photo: Carmen Fernholz, 2020)

As FMR readers know, our organization has been a driving force to establish a new federal program to revitalize the Mississippi, helping lead a growing organizational collaborative modeled on the highly successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Dubbed the Mississippi River Restoration & Resilience Initiative (MRRRI, or "Meer-ee"), it will enhance federal river restoration and resilience funding for projects and program activities in the 10 states that border the Mississippi River.

When passed, the MRRRI Act will authorize $300-$350 million annually in federal funds to states, cities, tribal governments and nonprofit organizations to improve water quality, restore habitat and natural systems, reduce aquatic invasive species and build local resilience to natural disasters in and along the Mississippi River.

We can't get to state or federal clean water goals for the river without addressing our agricultural systems.

MRRRI aims to improve water quality by reducing the amount of polluted runoff, excess agricultural nutrients and sediment entering the Mississippi River. By addressing both urban and rural pollution sources, we'll have a shot at meeting the clean water goals crucial to the health of people and ecosystems, as well as minimizing the impacts of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. 

MRRRI agricultural approach: all about innovation

How can we approach such a vast and complex problem? MRRRI has a three-pronged strategy to support innovation in agriculture, and in turn, address our water problems.

But first, let's start with what MRRRI will not do. The MRRRI Act does not include any new regulations and will not force landowners to do anything. Also, MRRRI will not seek to replace existing federal programs that already provide substantial funding for traditional farmland conservation practices. For example, federal farm bill conservation programs alone have invested more than $20 billion in the 10 main-stem Mississippi River states since 1995. 

Instead, MRRRI will invest in three key strategies that help farmers improve soil health, enhance water quality, reduce nutrient loss and boost farmers' bottom lines — goals that policymakers of all stripes can agree with.

Strategy #1 — Soil health
  • MRRRI Act bill language and approach: "Increase water retention and infiltration through actions that promote a healthy soil ecosystem, including maximizing soil cover, maximizing soil biodiversity, and maximizing the presence of living roots."

In other words, MRRRI will invest in activities that promote soil health. Soil health is river health. By enabling farmers to adopt advanced strategies including no-till, reduced tillage and cover cropping, we can improve soil health while making a profit and supporting clean water.

While there is some overlap between this strategy and some existing federal and state programs, our hope is that through this effort we can identify the most innovative and impactful soil health initiatives for MRRRI funding to support.

Strategy #2 — Landscape-scale vegetative cover
  • MRRRI Act bill language and approach: "Reduce nonpoint sources of pollution and promote landscape-scale vegetative cover (including perennial grains, perennial woody crops, winter annual cover crops, perennial pasture, and other approaches to maintain year-round vegetative cover) through the implementation of voluntary initiatives developed with the support of market research."

Growing crops year-round — sometimes referred to as "continuous living cover" — establishes living roots that can hold soil, water and excess nutrients and keep them from running off into the river. Because of their importance to river health, at FMR we also refer to these power plants as "clean-water" crops.

To make living cover across the landscape a reality, we need to invest in plant breeding, supply chains and markets. This work is underway in programs like the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which FMR River Guardians helped secure state funding for, and our water program supports as part of the Forever Green Partnership.

Some of these crops are perennial crops like Kernza, silphium and perennial flax that grow year-round and are still able to be harvested and sold for profit by producers.

Others include "cash cover crops" like camelina or pennycress — plants that act as a traditional over-wintering cover crop but can also be harvested and sold for profit by producers before the following summer crop goes in.

However, since these crops are harvested instead of maintained purely as a conservation practice, they don't qualify for common federal crop incentive programs. Through the MRRRI Act, we hope to begin filling that void by exploring a new suite of conservation incentives that can accommodate market-based continuous living cover systems.

Strategy #3 — Permanent (and flexible) land conservation
  • MRRRI Act bill language and approach: “Improve water quality and water retention through voluntary conservation easements or other similar permanent land protections with enhanced flexibility.”

Right now, eco-minded farmers can choose to set land aside for conservation in one of two ways: temporary conservation (short-term programs like CRP) or permanent conversation (conservation easements). These land retirement programs generally prohibit farmers from grazing or haying such lands or using them for other economically beneficial uses that are compatible with conservation goals. That means that farmers must sacrifice profits for conservation.

MRRRI provides an opportunity for a middle path, informed by farmers and stakeholders: permanent conservation practices with increased flexibility that allows for some specific economic utilization without compromising conservation goals. While details need to be worked out, this could include managed rotational grazing, seasonal haying and other commercial uses that are consistent with ecological goals while also providing an economic return to the producer.

Who decides which innovative strategies MRRRI will fund?

At the heart of MRRRI is the acknowledgment that no one person or group has all the answers. That’s why the legislation is designed to provide some overarching guidance for the program, but leave the specific details up to a stakeholder-driven process to develop an in-depth action plan.

Through this multi-year process, stakeholders from across the agricultural and conservation spectrums will have a chance to weigh in and shape how MRRRI makes investments in soil health, vegetative cover and land conservation.

By working together and ensuring that everyone has a voice when these innovative strategies are developed in detail, we can help MRRRI maximize water quality and increase farm prosperity throughout the river corridor.

Interested in supporting MRRRI?

The best way to help make MRRRI a reality is to sign our MRRRI petition. This is your opportunity to let federal lawmakers know you stand with the river.

In addition, FMR will be contacting FMR River Guardians and others over the course of the next year, urging them to reach out to their members of Congress to ask them to support MRRRI.

Sign up to be a River Guardian to receive email action alerts when we need your help the most, plus invitations to educational happy hours and other events.

 

 

[i] FMR is also one of 218 organizations calling for a doubling of traditional farmland conservation programs – a funding push that will likewise benefit Mississippi River clean water outcomes.