Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Outperforms Entire-River-Basin Cropland Change in Elevating Downstream Water Quality

Dameng Yin

Study area and graphical abstract. .

Study area and graphical abstract.    

Graduate Student Project


The United States has invested billions of dollars in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to improve the environment. Is it paying out?

I am Dameng Yin, a Ph.D. student in the Geography department. In the last year, I have been working with my advisor Dr. Wang and professors from different disciplines on a RENEW seed project, to investigate the coupling of natural and human systems. In this project, I took advantage of large-scale remote sensing observations and conducted a pilot study to explore the impacts of farmers' enrollment in the CRP and cropland change on the downstream water quality.

While researchers have run simulation models and conducted surveys to show that CRP would improve the water quality, the improvement has not been verified at river-basin scales due to challenges in large scale observations. In addition, because only environmentally sensitive lands are qualified to enroll in CRP, most lands are still used for cultivation which could cause water pollution. Therefore, the question to be answered is: does the CRP improve water quality despite the large-scale cropland use?


Water quality is affected by croplands. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), where farmers convert croplands to natural land cover (e.g. trees), is expected to improve water quality. However, whether such improvements are achieved alongside cropland change has not been verified at river-basin scales, due to challenges in large scale observations. Therefore, aiming to quantify the impact of the CRP on the water quality, we propose an approach that combines large-scale remote sensing observations with archived survey data and water quality monitoring data. By constructing the long-term datasets (1999-2014 annually) and conducting multiple linear regression, we found that enrollment in the CRP, especially water quality targeted practices, significantly improves the downstream water quality. While this pioneering effort of quantifying CRP impacts on water quality from large scale observations has achieved some success, we call for more research to expand the spatial and/or temporal scales and consider more water quality variables.

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