It seems like “dollars spent” has become the new metric for reporting improvements in soil and water conservation. I totally agree, we should know how much money is being spent on protecting our natural resources, but I think “dollars spent” is a misleading way to report progress. Taxpayers are entitled to information that contains more specificity, such as tons of soil or pounds of nitrogen kept from entering water bodies.
Better yet, progress reporting should include efficiency information such as the cost of saving a ton of soil (cost/ton of soil), or the cost of averting nitrogen (cost/pound of nitrogen), from entering our water bodies.
Current reporting methods may sometimes go one step beyond dollars spent and provide the number of practices implemented. That doesn’t give us the full picture either, because we don’t know, with any degree of accuracy, the effectiveness of the practices.
Recently, the Iowa BMP Mapping Project issued a cumulative report on the number of practices installed;
- 114,400 pond dams.
- 327,900 acres of grassed waterways.
- 506,100 terraces running 88,874 miles.
- 246,100 basins covering 12,555 miles.
- 557,700 acres of contour buffer strips.
- 109,800 acres of strip cropping.
The report estimated the cost to install these practices would be $6.2 billion, using the value of today’s dollar.
Certainly, these numbers can be impressive. However, it is almost meaningless to know how many practices are applied, or the amount of money spent, if we don’t understand the individual or cumulative effectiveness of these practices. In all fairness, the goal of the Iowa BMP Mapping Project was probably not to determine the benefits of conservation work. But maybe it should it have been.
Let’s face it. As conservationists, it’s up to us to tell our story and promote the value of conservation practices that keep contaminants from entering waterbodies. It is essential we tell the public what they are getting for their million-plus dollar investment in clean water.
As stewards of taxpayer money, we should start reporting more meaningful metrics. I think we should figure out how to report:
- tons of soil erosion prevented and the cost/ton of reducing erosion
- reduction in pounds of nitrogen prevented from entering waterbodies and the cost/pound for the reduction
- acre feet of flood water retained by structural practices
- reduction in greenhouse gasses and the associated costs
Rarely, I find, is progress reported in meaningful metrics that highlight impacts. Without meaningful metrics how do we know if we are achieving continuous improvement with precision conservation? Without meaningful metrics how can we expect the public to continue to support soil and water conservation efforts? Let’s get better and start gathering the information that we need, and taxpayers need, to make better decisions.
Good food for thought, Tom. I am sure the legislators quietly ask the same questions or at least I hope they do before they spend taxpayer dollars. Quantifying those results should be figured in to the program’s expense to analyze the results so we are not spending money on programs that do not work. The same questions are being raised about the cost effectiveness of cover crops as you well know. We do not do enough to tell the taxpayers the affects that the CRP/Wetlands, CSP have had on protecting our environment. You are right, the amount of taxpayer dollars spent does not indicate the programs will be a success. We only have to look at our government’s war on poverty, the education systems, and our penal systems to realize that.
Dwight, we need to do better and we can do better. The science and technology to give us meetingful answers exists. As a conservation community We need to focus money on upfront technology instead just hiring employees and spending costshare; especially when we have no idea on the effectiveness of our costshare. The taxpayers deserve better. Oddly all parties agree we need better accounting.
Tom – Appreciate your thoughts on providing more meaningful metrics, which is exactly what the results from the BMP mapping project will be used to do. The results at this time are preliminary, and there’s some QA/QC work that needs finished before we can calculate the numbers for tons of reduced soil and phosphorus losses, but it will be done as soon as possible. Those metrics will be provided based on practice performance from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy science assessment. Additional work is also underway with the BMP mapping work to assess the progress that has been made from past (1980’s) to present, giving us metrics on the amount of soil and phosphorus loss reductions that have been made over time. Stay tuned.
Shawn, thank you for your clarifying remarks. I did not mean to specifically single out this work. I am thrilled that Agribusiness Association of Iowa is working to take this one step further. It is critical that we continue to provide famers with the best information for decision making. I am convinced that many farmers are not installing practices becasue they have no idea the benefits or “bang for the buck” they are going to recieve from installing any one practice. Please keep all us up-to-date on your progress. I would love to do a follow-up post on your efforts.
“In all fairness, the goal of the Iowa BMP Mapping Project was probably not to determine the benefits of conservation work. But maybe it should it have been.”
So what was the goal? After reading about the project, I would very much appreciate knowing.
I read a claim somewhere to the approximate effect that this project showed that Iowa farmers have built thousands of ponds in the last few decades, so that proves farmers can build thousands of wetlands in the future. That claim seemed a little odd to me. But maybe being able to make that claim was the goal?
Cindy, thank you for your comment and concerns. You are not alone. Shortly after I published this post I got a call from Shawn Richmond, Agribusiness Association of Iowa (AAI). Shawn said he also felt frustration in the lack of reporting outcomes, but AAI is still working to generate that information. For more detail please read the comment from Shawn. Shawn and I agreed there needs to be a follow-up on this in one of my next posts.
Thank you for discussing this topic. I think that for many of us who work in conservation on a daily basis, we are able to convert the metrics of tons of soil loss or phosphorous saved to a public benefit such as cubic yards of sediment kept out of a reservoir or pounds of algae that are reduced. But, I think the general public and many legislators may have difficulty in moving from the metrics we often cite to a meaningful change in the environment as they experience it. Do you think it is useful to take the metrics we often use and go one step further to find a way to connect these metrics to locally meaningful outcomes?
And on a second note, another interesting metric that we often ignore is the economic impact of conservation activities. I worry that when people hear of a landowner getting $30,000 in cost-share for a conservation practice, they mentally hear a $30,000 conservation welfare payment to a landowner. In actuality, this $30,000 is often a direct contribution to the local economy in terms of manpower, equipment, and supplies for installing activities. We are often silent on this kind of reporting.
Jason, this is a difficult question. Maybe worthy of an entire post. I will give some thought to a meaningful response.
This conservation measurement system needs to be tied into the metrics that Field to Market is trying to develop. Sustainability is a broad topic, but to me conservation is an important piece of it. Your thoughts on soil loss, nitrogen use, and greenhouse gas prevention are all part of sustainable management metrics as well.
Paul, thank you for your comment. I do think that the Fieldprint Calculator (Field to Market) is a great way to set benchmarks, but in my view it falls short in helping us understand the level of nitrogen or sediment being delivered to water bodies. As conservationists we need tools that will effectively model the impacts of change on individual fields. The science is available but we have failed to convert the science into useful technology.