Nutrient Objectives for Agricultural Streams: Measures of Success for Watershed Management

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 Current links between water quality and agriculture | Why do we need nutrient objectives for agricultural streams | What is the nutrient objectives project | Status of project | For more information

Current links between Water Quality and Agriculture

Agricultural activity is intimately linked with water resources, from water supply and demand, to providing clean water for irrigation and livestock production, to the role agricultural practices may have on water quality. These linkages are reflected in a variety of land management and watershed planning frameworks in Alberta. The Alberta Land Use Framework (ALUF) strives to set environmental objectives balanced against current and projected land uses in order to maintain desirable environmental, economic, and social goals in the face of continued population and economic growth. Water management frameworks are incorporated within ALUF and other watershed management plans, such as those prepared by Alberta Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs), with a focus on mainstem rivers such as the Athabasca and Bow rivers. These frameworks intend to maintain or improve current water quality in the province.

Changes in agricultural practices aimed at improving water quality will largely continue to be encouraged through voluntary initiatives such as the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) and Agricultural Watershed Enhancement (AWE) programs. These programs are intended to promote, assist with, and fund agricultural beneficial management practices (BMPs) that lead to measurable improvements in water supply and quality. The adoption of BMPs by the agricultural community, in turn, provides essential ecosystem services, such as water filtration and retention by wetlands and healthy riparian areas.

Flow and water quality monitoring at Big Valley Creek, Alberta. July 2016.

Why do we need Nutrient Objectives for Agricultural Streams?

A key knowledge gap for assessing the state of water quality in agricultural watersheds and planning watershed management programs is in defining nutrient objectives that reflect healthy aquatic ecosystems in prairie landscapes. Most guidelines have been developed for large rivers or lakes with different ecological conditions and management priorities, or in different natural regions of Canada. Applying these guidelines to small agricultural watersheds could lead to erroneous conclusions of water quality condition and may lead to greater management than required to achieve suitable water quality. In addition, agricultural stewardship programs, such as ALUS and AWE, are commonly criticized on the grounds of evaluating project success – the task of communicating project success becomes even more difficult when suitable water quality objectives are not available.

Natural regions, major streams and rivers, and monitoring locations included in the study.

What is the Nutrient Objectives Project?

The Water Quality Section of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is leading a three-year (2016–2018) research program that will develop water quality objectives for nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) that reflect the natural setting of Alberta’s primary agricultural areas and to determine whether the objectives are attainable in watershed management scenarios. The project is in partnership with the University of Alberta and is funded primarily through the Water Innovation Program administered by Alberta Innovates. Stakeholder groups informing the project goals and outcomes include agricultural and environmental groups such as the Intensive Livestock Working Group, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Alberta Environment and Parks, and the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance.

Assessing agriculture’s ability to achieve the nutrient objectives derived through this project is perhaps the most critical component of this project to the agricultural industry. This will be achieved through the use of watershed modelling programs that integrate hydrological, land management, and nutrient transport processes. Land management scenarios, including the definition of BMPs, will be based on practices relevant to the study watersheds and will be decided on by input from industrial stakeholders and intergovernmental agricultural representatives. The outcomes of the watershed simulations, with respect to in-stream nutrient concentrations, will be compared against nutrient objectives to determine whether they can be met with BMP implementation. An economic assessment will also be included in order to assess the costs at which desirable water quality outcomes can be obtained.

This project will yield nutrient objectives that are suitable to the Alberta landscape, can be applied in agricultural watershed management programs, and can be achieved should water quality improvements be necessary. These nutrient objectives will allow us to better plan BMP implementation in watershed management programs. This project will also position us to inform broader land use planning initiatives with nutrient objectives that reflect agricultural prairie streams and do not put pressure on the agricultural industry to achieve overly stringent objectives.

Status of Project

Since project initiation in April 2016, we have selected study sites at 56 streams throughout the Parkland and Grassland natural regions, sampled for water quality and algae, and breakdown and nutrient retention. Three graduate students are being recruited by the University of Alberta to study the relationship among nutrients, algae growth, and stream ecosystem services. Prior to the 2017 season, we will select two watersheds for simulating BMP implementation and water quality improvement. Here, we are intentionally targeting high-intensity watersheds that have available modelling data to see if the established nutrient objectives can be met with practicable BMP implementation. Input from the agricultural industry will be sought to inform the BMP scenarios for the watershed modelling and for applying program results to agricultural watershed management programs at a broader scale. The final report for this project will be completed by April 2019.

For more Information

Greg Piorkowski, Water Research Specialist
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry
Phone: 780-644-1971

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This information published to the web on April 6, 2017.
Last Reviewed/Revised on June 7, 2017.