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A riparian forest buffer and, in background, the stream it helps protect from farm field runoff. Link to photo information
CEAP studies cost-effectiveness of conservation practices, such as this riparian forest buffer that ARS ecologist Richard Lowrance is standing next to. This kind of buffer can keep excess phosphorus from streams. Click the image for more information about it.

Farm Conservation Dollars and Sense

By Don Comis
December 9, 2005

New York City has decided that underwriting the costs of farmers' installing conservation practices is a better buy than the technological fix of changing treatment methods for its drinking water.

Making sure that taxpayers are getting their money's worth from publicly funded conservation measures is the goal of the new Conservation Effects Assessment Program (CEAP). Most of the funds for agricultural conservation come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, the “Farm Bill.”

The Farm Bill used to fund mostly commodity-related programs. The legislators shifted emphasis in 2002 by increasing conservation funding by 80 percent, compared to the 1996 bill.

This intensified demands to ensure that conservation funding be used effectively. USDA decided to do a cost-benefit analysis of the conservation practices funded over the past 50 years and report the results to the Office of Management and Budget, Congress, farmers, ranchers and environmental policymakers. CEAP is the result, with a goal of putting dollar-and- cent values on the practices’ farm and environmental benefits.

The program includes watershed projects in states from New York to California, involving farmers, ranchers and local, state and federal partners. Clarence Richardson, director of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Grassland Soil and Water Research Laboratory in Temple, Texas, coordinates ARS watersheds in the program.

CEAP’s Town Brook, N.Y., watershed is a good example. Its nearly 9,150 acres drain into Cannonsville Reservoir, the second-largest reservoir in the Catskill/Delaware reservoir system that supplies about 94 percent of New York City's drinking water. Excess phosphorus, probably from dairy manure, stimulates algal blooms that interfere with chlorination.

New York City’s water authority decided it was economical to help farmers control phosphorus.

It is this type of costs and benefits CEAP will measure over the next several years, along with improving practices.

Read more about ARS research as part of CEAP in the December 2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the USDA’s chief scientific research agency.