SERA46: Framework for Nutrient Reduction Strategy Collaboration: the Role for Land Grant Universities

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

SERA46: Framework for Nutrient Reduction Strategy Collaboration: the Role for Land Grant Universities

Duration: 10/01/2014 to 09/30/2019

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

The Gulf of Mexico covers approximately 600,000 square miles and is the ninth largest body of water in the world. Water enters the Gulf through the Yucatan Strait, circulates as the Loop Current, and exits through the Florida Strait eventually forming the Gulf Stream. Coastal wetlands in the Gulf encompass over five million acres (about half of the U.S. total) and serve as important habitat for numerous fish and wildlife species. Gulf fisheries are some of the most productive in the world. It is home to 141 federally protected species (102 are endangered) including fish, birds, turtles, alligators, coral and plants.

FIGURE 1. Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB) in the USA and the general location of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico – to the southwest of New Orleans. (see attachment)

The Mississippi River accounts for nearly two-thirds of the freshwater flows to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi-Missouri River is the fourth longest in the world (3,710 miles or 5,970 km) draining the third largest river basin in the world (1.2 million mi2 or 3.1 million km2) (Figure 1). The Basin includes all or parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian Provinces. Tributaries to Lake Itasca in Minnesota are the source of the Mississippi River and about 70% of the flow discharges into the Gulf of Mexico more than 50 miles (80 km) southeast of New Orleans in Louisiana and 30% of the discharge is through the Atchafalaya River delta, to the west of Louisiana. More than 72 million people live in the Mississippi River Basin. It is the migration corridor for 60 percent of North America's bird species and supports 25 percent of its fish species. The River provides water to more than 50 cities and 18 million people.

Annually, the United States grows more than one-third of the corn and soybeans in the World and much of this production is in the Mississippi River Basin (USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service, Large amounts of wheat, cotton and rice are grown in the Basin and it contains extensive cattle and hog operations. More than 70% of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Gulf of Mexico is associated with agricultural activities (Alexander et al., 2008).

It is estimated that prior to 1980 10.4 million hectares of the 18.1 million hectares of wetlands in the Mississippi River Basin were drained primarily to support crop production (Hey and Philippi, 1995). From 1980 to 2005, nitrogen loadings ranged from 0.8 million to 2.2 million metric tons per year. Over the same period, values of phosphorus loadings were between 0.08 million and 0.18 million metric tons per year (Aulenbach et al., 2007). Nitrate load in the Mississippi River increased about threefold from the 1950s to the mid-1990s (Goolsby and Battaglin, 2001). The high nutrient loads, loss of floodplains and wetlands, population growth, anthropogenic changes to the landscape, increased combustion of fossil fuel, engineering of the river system, and point sources are the primary causes of water quality problems in the Basin, hypoxia in the Gulf, and a decline in the assimilative capacity and resilience of these systems.

Since 1985, the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico has exceeded 3860 mi2 (10,000 km2) in most years and more than 7720 mi2 (20,000 km2) in several years (Figure 2). While only about 30% of the size of the hypoxic zone in the Baltic Sea it is the second largest hypoxic zone in the world. Annual sizes of the hypoxic zone range from areas larger than the State of Delaware to the size of New Jersey. Nutrient impacts on the Gulf of Mexico, The Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and other water resources have resulted in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring states to establish numeric nutrient standard for rivers and lakes. In 2010, Wisconsin was the first state to set phosphorus standards.

FIGURE 2. Size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico from 1985-2013 (source: N.N. Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium,, R.E. Turner, Louisiana State University. Funded by: NOAA, Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research). (see attachment)

States in the Mississippi/Ohio River Basin are developing and implementing strategies to reduce loading nitrogen and phosphorous to their local surface waters and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico in an effort to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone. These efforts are being integrated through the Hypoxia Task Force (HTF), a collaborative mix of environmental quality, agricultural, and conservation agencies from twelve of the basin states and five federal agencies ( Established in 1997, the Hypoxia Task Force (HTF) brings together 12 upper and lower Mississippi River Basin states and five federal agencies to partner on local, state, and regional efforts to reduce nutrient pollution. It encourages a holistic approach that takes into account upstream sources and downstream impacts. The HTF is assisted by a Coordinating Committee (CC), which is the day-to-day coordinating body for recommending actions to the HTF and facilitating implementation of those actions. The CC is comprised of various subcommittees and working groups to assure good communication with on-the-ground implementers.

In 2008, the HTF adopted its second Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan
( The Action Plan has a goal of reducing the five-year running average size of the hypoxia zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers. To achieve this goal and improve water quality in the Basin, a 45% reduction in total nitrogen and total phosphorus load, relative to the average 1980 – 1996 load may be necessary. The Action Plan identifies specific actions for stakeholders throughout the Mississippi River Basin, with the development and implementation of state nutrient reduction strategies as its key priority. The strategies are comprehensive in nature and address both point and nonpoint sources of nutrient pollution. Point sources are regulated under EPA’s NPDES program while nonpoint sources, mainly agriculture, are largely currently unregulated. Both sources must significantly reduce the loss of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) from the landscape for the strategies to be successful. A reassessment of the 2008 Action plan was published in
( In the reassessment the HTF state:

Research on the Gulf ecosystem since the last reassessment (2005–2007) has led to a more comprehensive understanding of factors regulating hypoxia, but the overwhelming majority of these studies have reinforced the central tenet of the 2008 Action Plan that “reducing nutrient loadings from the various sources in the Basin addresses the most critical and controllable cause of hypoxia.” Reducing nutrient inputs into the MARB and Gulf will continue to be the Task Force’s overall approach towards reducing the size of the Gulf hypoxic zone and protecting in-basin waters. The advancement of new tools and analyses has also better refined our approaches to controlling nutrient loads.

In the United States, many states have developed, or are in the process of developing, best management practice (BMP) guidelines on how to reduce agricultural impacts on water quality while sustaining productivity and profitability. An example is The Agricultural BMP Handbook for Minnesota ( Land Grant Universities (LGUs) are uniquely positioned to assist each state within the basin and the HTF as a whole in the development and implementation of the state level nutrient reduction strategies. These institutions conduct research ranging from basic discovery to on-the-ground applications of the science of soil conservation, nutrient movement, water quality and human behavior. The extension specialists and educators put the science into practice by educating farmers and agribusinesses, conducting on-farm research, and understanding farm level economics and farmer decision making. LGUs in each state have expertise in the local soils, climates, people and solutions, and are a highly trusted source of objective research-based information helpful to all entities actively exploring solutions to nutrient pollution. In addition, through USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and formal and informal committees, faculty in LGUs regularly collaborate on multi-state research and extension education projects. An excellent example is the science-based Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy analysis that evaluated about 20 million acres, that incorporated corn as part of the crop rotation, and focused on the potential water quality impacts of these crop systems on the Gulf of Mexico

This proposal provides a framework for greater collaboration at various levels among Mississippi/Ohio River Basin states tasked with developing a nutrient reduction strategy for their state along with their LGU that has the research and extension education capacity to address agriculture’s contribution to excessive nutrient loadings. In the context of this proposal, “nutrient management” is used to mean the efficient utilization of on-farm nutrients for optimum crop production while minimizing nutrient movement and environmental degradation.

SERA Goal: “Promote effective implementation of science-based approaches to nutrient management/conservation that reduces nutrient losses to the environment.”


1. Establish and strengthen relationships that can serve the missions of multiple organizations addressing nutrient movement and environmental quality.

a. Support regular communication and collaboration among LGUs, HTF members, and other partners to strengthen multi-state approaches regarding agricultural and environmental research and outreach

b. Encourage intrastate interactions among state agencies, universities and others to meet state-level nutrient reduction goals

c. Leverage the synergy of the HTF-LGU relationship to seek/secure funding to support multistate initiatives that address HTF goals

2. Expand the knowledge base for discovery of new tools and practices as well as for the continual validation of recommended practices.

a. Strengthen the science base that informs our understanding of the efficacy of nutrient and water management strategies at multiple temporal and spatial scales

b. Refine and increase use of appropriate nutrient and water decision support tools for better decision-making

c. Promote environmental assessment research to improve soil and water quality

3. Improve the coordination and delivering of educational programming and increase the implementation effectiveness of nutrient management strategies that reduce nutrient movement for agricultural and non-agricultural audiences.

a. Customize educational programming (and information sharing) to the learning styles of the various audience segments

b. Increase the emphasis on social science factors in targeting educational methods

Internal and External Linkages

• Hypoxia Task Force and Coordinating Committee and the state and federal agencies represented by those groups

• Other multi-state projects addressing hypoxia and nutrient loss related issues:

o SERA 17, Organization to Minimize Nutrient Loss from the Landscape

o NCERA 217, Drainage design and management practices to improve water quality

o NC 1195, Enhancing nitrogen utilization in corn based cropping systems to increase yield, improve profitability and minimize environmental impacts

o SERA 43, Southern Region Integrated Water Resources Coordinating Committee

o NC 1190, Catalysts for Water Resources Protection and Restoration: Applied Social Science Research

• The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, American Farmland Trust

• North Central Region Water Network

• Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Leaders

• The Fertilizer Institute, International Plant Nutrition Institute

• Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto, and other seed companies

• Mosaic, PotashCorp, and other fertilizer companies

• Other state and federal agencies not represented on the HTF or CC


• Southern and North Central SARE

• National Corn Growers, United Soybean Board, and other key commodity organizations


  1. Establish and strengthen relationships that can serve the missions of multiple organizations addressing nutrient movement and environmental quality.
  2. Expand the knowledge base for discovery of new tools and practices as well as for the continual validation of recommended practices
  3. Improve the coordination and delivering of educational programming and increase the implementation effectiveness of nutrient management strategies that reduce nutrient movement for agricultural and non-agricultural audiences

Procedures and Activities

Objective 1 Establish and strengthen relationships that can serve the missions of multiple organizations addressing nutrient movement and environmental quality.

In order to enhance current relationships, and facilitate new ones, the SERA group will consider a number of mechanisms to bring together Land-grant University (LGU) research and extension faculty with relevant federal and state agency personnel and public/private stakeholders in various activities aimed at reducing nutrient loading in the Mississippi river basin. One such activity that will be pursued is a joint forum between LGU faculty and Hypoxia Task Force (HTF) and its Coordinating Committee’s (CC) members where presentations from both groups will explain the science, outreach, and engagement programs currently being conducted and further needs that should be addressed. These forums should lead to a better understanding of current activities and facilitate LGU, federal, and state collaboration of future efforts. Additional joint forums may also include other public/private stakeholders and potentially focus on those stakeholders main interest areas.

State and/or sub-region workshops/summits/symposiums may be hosted to provide a more localized forum for identifying needs and priorities of HTF member state agencies and match them to capacities of LGUs. This would also enhance collaborations between LGU faculty and state agency personnel at the local and state level.

Another potential activity of the SERA is to arrange listening sessions to engage agricultural industry, environmental, and other stakeholders in facilitated dialogs with LGU faculty and federal/state agencies to develop creative solutions to addressing nutrient losses. These sessions would lead to a better understanding of each group’s point of view and an appreciation of the capacity and limitations for addressing concerns.

The SERA will consider how best to develop a mechanism for informing the HTF and CC members and other federal/state agencies of the expertise and capacity that exists within specific LGUs to support technical needs and requirements of those agencies. This could involve a single contact at each institution as an entry point for inquiries and expertise searches or some other simple system for navigating the LGUs involved.

There is a need for long range non-traditional thinking related to the issues being addressed by the HTF and the SERA. A facilitated “blue-sky” dialog on topics of interest to researchers, extension educators, and HTF members would result in a curiosity-driven, visioning of new approaches and solutions. Examples from recent sessions of this type include:

o Transferability of technology that has been successful in individual Task Force states

o Exploration of new outreach strategies, such as effectiveness of farmer-led watershed efforts in promoting practice adoption

o Collaborating with state agencies to develop and validate state numeric criteria for nutrient loading

o Revisiting basin-wide measures of success in nutrient loading reduction in light of new information, science, and technology

o Identifying best practices where science and technology work together with humanities and the arts to address big societal problems, and develop research, outreach, and engagement approaches to nutrient loading reduction based on those examples.

If appropriate, the SERA will assist the HTF in designing challenge and/or competitive funding opportunities, similar to Tulane’s Hypoxia Challenge, to encourage LGU, federal, and state collaborations to address key needs. Areas such as watershed-level nutrient reduction measurements, agricultural nitrogen use efficiency for reduced runoff, and multi-agency public education programs are examples.

Objective 2 Expand the knowledge base through the discovery of new tools and practices as well as the continual validation of recommended practices.

Land Grant University faculty are best suited to provide credible discovery and applied science to the issue of gulf hypoxia for the Ohio/Mississippi river basin. LGU faculty are well-positioned to engage with HTF members to best understand scenarios and concerns in each state and then to connect to each state’s research programs in determining potential solutions. While LGU faculty often work primarily in individual states, there are several multi-state projects that exist that would benefit from regional research coordination as proposed by this SERA.

The LGU research activities will be addressed via a strategic process. Initially, all twelve states will work through an inventory process to best identify which states are doing what research on topics related to gulf hypoxia. This will provide a strong assessment of the gaps and overlap that is occurring among states. Gap assessment along with formal dialogue with HTF members will provide direction for immediate and long-term research priorities.

Research on basic mechanisms and principles of hypoxia and its development has been comprehensive. While that research will continue, the greatest expansion of research is needed in the discovery, and application, of new and existing monitoring tools that will significantly affect recommended practices. Examples in this area include items such as sensors, imaging, GPS, GIS, etc. In addition, there needs to be a continual validation of existing practices, such as fertilizer application rates, tile drainage guidelines, etc. While most research efforts are led by biological, ecological, and physical scientists, there is a strong need to acknowledge and expect input from economists, sociologists, and policy analysts that integrate the various scientists’ efforts with the goal of optimizing agronomic, economic, and environmental impacts. Integration of these research components will form a strong foundation for educational programs and state/federal regulations that may need to be considered to address the hypoxia issue.

Through a formal SERA meeting process along with the proposed interaction with the HTF, there should be a greater understanding of tools and technologies that are being tested/refined in one state that other states may want to validate for their own use. As applied research goes through this validation process, the application of that research often is expanded to benefit more areas and circumstances.

Some potential research-related activities of this SERA will include:

o Develop and publish regional (basin-wide) white papers and synthesis documents on hypoxia-related research issues and topics as determined by the SERA committee with input from HTF/CC.

o Provide scientific expertise and counsel on hypoxia science-related topics for input into HTF deliverables, such as the 2008 Action Plan and the subsequent EPA directive.

o Design directed research proposals/projects that will develop selected, state/region-appropriate nutrient management practices, applied individually and collectively, and quantify performance, efficacy, costs, and life-span of those practices.

o Develop new (and improve existing) geospatial and statistical modelling tools to guide and inform targeted conservation planning and assessment. Suites of proposed tools should address economic costs, benefits, and risks.

o Aid HTF member agencies with research and statistical resources to design, deliver, and interpret monitoring programs to assess various conservation effects of practices applied individually and collectively.

Objective 3 Improve the coordination and delivering of educational programming and increase the implementation effectiveness of nutrient management strategies that reduce nutrient movement for agricultural and non-agricultural audiences.

The strength of this SERA is its focus on applied research and outreach toward specific environmental management challenges: efficient management of nitrogen and phosphorus at local, state, and Mississippi Basin scales. There is a substantial body of research available to be applied in agricultural operations and in watershed management. Extension professionals continue to be an important part of the workforce working with agriculture and community leaders to facilitate wider adoption of practices that improve nutrient use efficiency and promote on the ground implementation of BMPs. Extension can also assist States in determining how they will meet implementation goals and reduction targets, how they will verify and track those targets.

In pursuit of this objective, the SERA will develop and refine extension programs in the following areas:

• Engage farmers in producer-led watershed projects and on-farm research and demonstration efforts. Producers are expert problem-solvers and are the primary decision-makers in agricultural nutrient management. Extension can work with partners to facilitate farmer leadership in on-farm and watershed management in the Mississippi River Basin and associated states.

• Exchange information about other model programs for working with farmers to improve conservation practices and nutrient use efficiency, such as Mississippi State University’s REACH program. There are many existing successful outreach programs that are ripe for expansion to other Mississippi River Basin states. This activity would identify model programs and work to adapt and expand them.

• Increase use of appropriate nutrient decision support tools for better decision-making. Farmers and farm advisors are faced with the challenges of changing research, technology, weather patterns, and socio-political contexts. The SERA is well-positioned to increase the availability and use of decision support tools to help farmers with complex nutrient management decisions.

• Increase the ability of local watershed managers and volunteers to develop and implement effective watershed plans. University extension programs nationwide have a substantial number of high quality watershed leadership programs. These programs train local leaders from all backgrounds in the science and art of watershed planning and management. They are perfect bridges for land-grant research in watershed management to reach users, and for users to express their needs for additional research. The SERA can foster collaboration among existing watershed leadership programs and work to increase access to these programs across participating states. Water resource management is inherently local. Support for local watershed management is critical if Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico nutrient reduction goals are to be achieved.

• Convene land-grant livestock and crop specialists and educators to develop strategies for incorporating nutrient use efficiency research and management information into educational programs. Land-grant livestock and crop specialists and educators are trusted sources of information for farmers and farm advisors. However, many of our specialists focus strongly on production with only limited mention of the negative downstream impacts that some agricultural practices can have. The SERA could work with Extension Agriculture and Natural Resource Program Leaders, Experiment Station Directors, and others to convene a meeting of livestock and crop specialists to discuss how nutrient use efficiency, water management, and other practices can be incorporated into livestock and crop specialist extension programming and research. The purpose of this meeting would be to catalyze more extension engagement in meeting Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico nutrient reduction goals while maintaining farmer flexibility to make the best management decisions.


• By spring 2015, the SERA will have met with HTF/CC members to hear their needs and issues, as well as sharing the SERA’s objectives and proposed activities for comments and feedback.

• By fall 2015, the SERA will have identified key areas of research and education needing immediate emphasis based on SERA/HTF engagement and state summaries of current efforts.

• By spring 2016, the SERA will have begun implementation of one or more high priority activities.

• By spring 2017, the SERA will have completed at least one high priority activity.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Objective 1 • Increased knowledge base among LGU and HTF/CC members on effective implementation of science-based approaches that reduce nutrient losses to the environment. • Increased understanding of nutrient reduction strategies that can be employed across states. • Increased collaboration among LGUs and HTF member agencies, as well as other public and private stakeholders. • Increased sharing of nutrient reduction strategies across states. • Strengthened relationships and communication between LGUs and HTF/CC members. • Development of innovative solutions to nutrient losses, including working involvement of stakeholders in implementing those solutions. • Better articulation and communication of current science, and science-based approaches, that reduce nutrient losses to the environment, including areas of broad agreement and those with diverse points of view. • A shift in narrative and problem framing from traditional unilateral positions to collaborative thought-leading dialogue around reducing nutrient losses for societal and environmental benefits.
  • Objective 2 • An increased understanding and comprehension of scientific issues by the HTF/CC through engagement and interaction with the SERA committee. • A broader awareness and understanding of research efforts for all SERA/HTF/CC members across the 12 states. • An increase in research protocol sharing among faculty in the Mississippi basin states. • Greater collaboration of researchers across state borders as indicated by research publications, technology applications, symposium, etc. • Advances in science-based public policy due to more robust monitoring and evaluation research. • More consistent best management practices (BMPs), modeling tools, and protocols due to multi-state research collaborations.
  • Objective 3 • Through the forums described above, LGUs will advance science-based, solution-oriented conversations addressing point and nonpoint sources of N and P, and will reach out to the agricultural community at state and national levels to support the development and implementation of state nutrient strategies. • The extension system in each state has the capacity to engage and educate agribusinesses, farmers and urban and urbanizing communities about water quality and the state’s nutrient strategy. • Agricultural stakeholders will be better equipped to participate in state nutrient strategies as business leaders and citizen stewards of soil and water resources. • Participating agencies will have a greater understanding of the economic and logistical challenges in agricultural nutrient management as well as potential solutions to those challenges. • Effective implementation of science-based approaches to nutrient management that reduces nutrient losses to the environment.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Outcomes from the SERA will be assimilated into LGU extension publications, programs, and activities to be distributed through service frameworks, communicated through state and regional workshops, field days and farm tours, and demonstrated through establishment of on-farm research-demonstration sites, such as Arkansas’s Discovery Farms and Mississippi REACH program. The SERA will consider digital formats for outreach throughout its activities as well as traditional field days and fact sheets. For additional education plans see Objective 3 activities above.


The core SERA project committee will be comprised of at least one research oriented and one extension oriented faculty from each of the 12 HTF Cooperative Agreement signatory LGU universities. Additional project participants may include other faculty from those and other universities, federal and state agency personnel, and representatives from public/private stakeholder groups. The primary SERA project governance will follow the standard model with a chair and chair-elect, both serving two year terms. The SERA may also establish ad hoc groups to develop and/or implement specific activities pursuant to the project’s objectives.

At the HTF’s request, in addition to the above governance structure, the SERA project committee will have one liaison appointed by the HTF to communicate HTF needs and priorities. Also, each HTF member state agency will be encouraged to appoint a liaison to engage relevant state agencies with the SERA. HTF will invite at least one representative from the SERA to participate in monthly Coordinating Committee webinars and conference calls. HTF will also invite the SERA to send a representative annually to one of their meetings (spring or fall) to report on SERA activities.

Literature Cited

Alexander Richard B, Richard A Smith, Gregory E Schwarz, Elizabeth W Boyer, Jacqueline V Nolan, and John W Brakebill. 2008. Differences in Phosphorus and Nitrogen Delivery to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River Basin. 2008. Environ. Sci. Technol. 42:822–830.

Aulenbach, B.T., Buxton, H.T., Battaglin, W.A., and Coupe, R.H., 2007, Streamflow and nutrient fluxes of the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin and sub-basins for the period of
record through 2005: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2007-1080.

Goolsby, Donald A. and William A. Battaglin. 2001. Long-term changes in concentrations and flux of nitrogen in the Mississippi River Basin, USA. Hydrological Processes 15(7):1209–1226,

Hey, D.L., and Philippi, N.S. 1995. Flood reduction through wetland restoration: The Upper Mississippi River Basin as a case history. Restor. Ecol., 3, 4–17.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

LSU Agricultural Center, Mississippi State University
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