Accountability at Local, State, and Federal Levels for Impacts of Agricultural Conservation Practices on Water Quality

Final Report for LS98-093

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1998: $223,322.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Federal Funds: $79,200.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $90,500.00
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dwight Fisher
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Project Information


Under the Government Performance Reform Act, federal conservation programs are evaluated by impact on natural resources. However, assessment is not always a component of these programs designed to improve or protect our natural resources. We sampled water quality for 3 years at 2 week intervals in portions of a watershed that had received federal funding of conservation practices. Spatial and temporal variation made it problematic to detect and describe impacts of conservation spending designed to reduce non-point pollution. Local impact wasn’t necessarily reflected at a larger scale as landscape features such as impoundments and point discharges became predominant.

Project Objectives:

Working within subwatersheds of the Upper Oconee Watershed of Georgia our objectives were to:

1) Monitor impact on surface water quality (biological, chemical, and physical properties) discharged from the watersheds as EQIP subsidized conservation practices are installed.

2) Examine monitoring at multiple scales and develop methods of addressing scaling issues that result in cost effective and scientifically defensible sampling strategies.

3) Utilize field days, other technology transfer opportunities, electronic means to communicate results.


Conservation programs and subsidies within USA agriculture have long relied on a voluntary approach to conservation on privately owned lands. The success of these programs depends on the working relationships of individual landowners with technical support staff of government agencies such as the USDA – Natural Resource Conservation Service. The policies of the 1996 Farm Bill have increased local control of identification and prioritization of natural resource problems and sustainable land management solutions. The Farm Bill also broadened natural resource issues to address soil, water, wetlands, wildlife, and species preservation concerns while mandating programs to support animal based agriculture and grazing lands management (Zinn, 1997). Through the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Local Work Groups were convened to identify high priority natural resource problems and propose solutions using the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP). The types of water quality problems identified by the EQIP Local Work Groups under the 1996 Farm Bill are of great concern to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) and Environmental Protection (EPA) because they are related to the water quality standards.

As the EPA and EPD develop water quality standards for lakes and steams, agricultural producers may be identified as contributing to impairments and charged to reduce their inputs to acceptable levels. Voluntary conservation practices and appropriate management can reduce impairments to waterways in some situations. However, except for sediments and some nutrients there are few data demonstrating the efficacy of subsidized practices. For example, the effects of conservation practices on levels of fecal bacteria associated with animal based agriculture are relatively unknown. In addition, intensification of agricultural systems challenges efforts to minimize agricultural impacts off the farm and increases the importance of developing effective means of creating sustainable agricultural systems (Matson et al., 1997). However, from the 1970s until 1992, less than 0.2% of the $500 billion spent through the Clean Water Act was spent to test for effectiveness of abatement programs (Hart, 1994) even though according to the Government Performance Reform Act, all federal agencies must develop new methods of evaluating outcomes of their activities (Zinn, 1997). A rational basis for gauging progress that provides an index of ecosystem health is essential for working with non-point sources of pollution (Courtemanch, 1994; Hart, 1994).

This project was conducted within the Upper Oconee Watershed (HUC 03070101) in the northern half of the Oconee River Basin of Georgia in the Southern Piedmont of the USA. The Upper Oconee Watershed covers 1,872,172 acres and includes 2,518 miles of continuously flowing streams (EPA, 1997). The population of the watershed was estimated to be 269,286 in 1990 and, based on observed trends, has grown to over 300,000. Total withdrawals of water were 1094 Mgal/d in 1990 and that total was 98% surface water. Although agriculture accounts for <1% of the water withdrawn from the watershed, the potential agricultural impact on the watershed is large with many confined animal production systems and extensive grazing lands. The headwaters of the Oconee River are in southern Hall County, GA with the North Oconee, the Middle Oconee, and the Mulberry River forming the three principal sources. The Middle Oconee and Mulberry River confluence is west and north of the city of Athens while the confluence of the Middle Oconee and North Oconee occurs immediately south of Athens. The Oconee basin contains a major regional city (Athens) and the Oconee River flows approximately 20 miles through predominantly agricultural sections of the watershed from Athens to Lake Oconee and on to Lake Sinclair. Lake Oconee is a Georgia Power reservoir located near the beginning of the Sand Hills and provides power, real estate development, and recreation for a large region. In the Upper Oconee Watershed, animal-based agricultural provides the largest agricultural income and many jobs within the community. Often, animal production systems use imported feeds with various manure disposal strategies that could lead to nutrient enrichment and degradation of watersheds. Changes in land use may also result in loss of farmland, fragmentation of habitat, and decreased populations of at-risk species (Dobson, et al., 1997). All sectors of the economy are concerned about water-related issues such as recreation, tourism, safety of the water supply as related to human health, and the effects of water quality on fishing, real estate values, and wildlife habitat. We have worked to define methods that are cost-effective and scientifically defensible for the evaluation of broad based natural resource programs such as the 1996 Farm Bill or those that might be mandated to achieve TMDL levels for impaired watersheds.

Courtemanch, David L. 1994. Bridging the old and new science of biological monitoring. J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc. 13:117-121.

Dobson, A.P., A.D. Bradshaw, and J.M. Baker. 1997. Hopes for the future: Restoration ecology and conservation biology. Science 277:515-521.

EPA. 1997. Index of watershed Indicators – Upper Oconee.

Hart, David D. 1994. Building a stronger partnership between ecological research and biological monitoring. J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc. 13: 110-116.

Matson, P.A., W.J. Parton, A.G. Power, and M.J. Swift. 1977. Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science 277:504-509.

Zinn, Jeffrey. 1997. After the 1996 Farm Bill – Challenges of change, a white paper report. J. Soil and Water Conserv. 52:147-150.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Anthony Dillard
  • Dinku Endale
  • Dory Franklin
  • Alan Franzluebbers
  • Jack Houston
  • Constance Neely
  • Mark Risse
  • Harry Schomberg
  • Jean Steiner
  • John Stuedemann
  • Lynn Usery


Materials and methods:

For three years, three sub-watersheds in the Upper Oconee Basin were sampled using a total of 25 sampling sites.

Water Quality Variables: Water samples collected from the watersheds were tested for microbial numbers per 100 ml (mpn/100ml) for total coliforms, E. coli, and enterococci bacteria. These tests were performed using the Colilert (IDEXX, Maine) and Enterolert (IDEXX, Maine) procedures. Microbe numbers as high as 2419 mpn/100 ml were made without dilution. Dilutions were made to keep E. coli and the enterococci within this range will.

Measurements were made at each site of turbidity, pH, conductivity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen a multi-probe instrument. Samples were collected and laboratory estimates of ammonium, nitrate, and total phosphorus were made spectrophotometrically.

We sampled for water quality in three focal areas. First, our North Route (NR) covered the headwaters of the North Oconee River, the Middle Oconee River, and the Mulberry River. The nine NR sites are in a subwatershed that extends north from Winder, west from Arcade and Maysville, and southeast of Blackshear Place, Chicapee, and Gainesville. Secondly, our South Route (SR) extended south from Monroe to Social Circle and east from those cites towards Lake Oconee. The SR includes the city of Madison. The Central Route is predominately rural and located north of Lake Oconee and south of the town of Bishop. The sample area represents a total contributing area of approximately 393,000 acres (158,000 ha) or 21% of the Upper Oconee Watershed.

Small watersheds located on the J. Phil Campbell Sr., Natural Resource Conservation Center were used to provide more detailed tests of effects noted from sampling at the Upper Oconee Watershed scale. For example, movement of microbes through the landscape from springs with and without cattle in the landscape and through ponds

Research results and discussion:

Results demonstrated the impact of impoundments such as farm ponds on microbial indicators of fecal contamination and this has attracted attention from researchers and producers. Since farm ponds can have value to the producer and may have positive impacts on water quality they could provide a conservation practice with economic value. During portions of the year with a higher probability of surface runoff it may be possible to position animals so that runoff moves through an impoundment prior to leaving the farm.

Currently, EPA is encouraging the move from fecal coliform to E. coli as a standard for fecal contamination. The microbial data collected during the course of this project is especially timely and has been presented to a group organized by the Georgia Conservancy and the University of Georgia that is developing recommendations for the establishment of new standards for E. coli in the surface waters of Georgia.

Additionally, this work has indicated the importance of position within the landscape of a source of pollution relative to the sampling site when monitoring water quality. Sources near a sample site may have a disproportionate impact on estimates of water quality. In contrast, significant sources of pollution far from a sample site may be masked by background levels of nutrients and microbes and be very difficult to detect.

The publications resulting from this work provide an appendix for this report. The results of this sampling period have provided an especially useful dataset representing expected values for nutrients and microbes under a variety of land uses. Additional reports in scientific and in technology transfer venues are expected over the course of the next two years as data analysis and summarization proceed.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Fisher, D.S., J.L. Steiner, D.M. Endale, J.S. Stuedemann, H.H. Schomberg, A.J. Franzluebbers, and S.R. Wilkinson. 1998. Strategic location of conservation practices related to cow-calf production in the Southern Piedmont. p. 413-421. In: Proc. 1st Int. Conf. On Geospatial Information in Agric. and Forestry. Volume II. ERIM, Ann Arbor, MI.

Steiner, J.L., D.S. Fisher, J.S. Stuedemann, D.M. Endale, A.J. Franzluebbers, H.H. Schomberg, D.H. Franklin, L.A. Harper, and R.R. Sharpe. 1998. Animals within Southern Piedmont landscapes: Nutrient balances. In: Building on a Decade of Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education. March 5-7, Austin TX.

Fisher, D. S., J.L. Steiner, and J.A. Stuedemann. 1998. Sustainability of land use practices within a watershed in the Southern Piedmont of the U.S. Agron. Abstr. p. 49

Fisher, D.S., and D.M. Endale. 1999. Total coliform, E. coli, and enterococci bacteria in grazed and wooded watersheds of the Southern Piedmont. p. 283-286. In: K.J. Hatcher (ed.) Proc. 1999 Georgia Water Resources Conference. 30-31 March. Inst. of Ecol., UGA, Athens.

Fisher, D.S., J.L. Steiner, D.M. Endale, J.A. Stuedemann, H.H. Schomberg, A.J. Franzluebbers, and S.R. Wilkinson. 2000. The relationship of land use practices to surface water quality in the Upper Oconee Watershed of Georgia. Forest Ecology and Management 128:39-48.

Fisher, D.S., D.M. Endale, and J.L. Steiner. 2000. Farm ponds and associated riparian buffers for limiting the movement of E. coli and enterococci bacteria from grazinglands. p. 24. Riparian Buffer Conference. 22 May. McKimmon Center, NCSU, Raleigh, NC.

Fisher, D.S., A.L. Dillard, E.L. Usery, J.L. Steiner, and C.L. Neely. 2001. Water quality in the headwaters of the Upper Oconee watershed. p. 198-200. In: K.J. Hatcher (ed.) Proc. 2001 Georgia Water Resources Conference. 26-27 March. Inst. of Ecol., UGA, Athens.

Endale, D.M., D.S. Fisher, and J.L. Steiner. 2001. Spatial and temporal soil water dynamics in a small Southern Piedmont Watershed. Annual Meeting Abstracts, ASA, CSSA, SSSA, Madison, WI.

Fisher, D.S., A.L. Dillard, J.L. Steiner, and C.L. Neely. 2002. Monitoring water quality to assess the impact of agricultural conservation programs. A08-fisher115743-Oral. Annual Meeting Abstracts, ASA, CSSA, SSSA, Madison, WI.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Data has already been made available to a committee organized by the Georgia Conservancy. The committee is known as the TMDL Advisory Committee and provides guidance to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division as they seek to establish acceptable Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) in surface waters of Georgia. The data providing background levels of E. coli and enterococci has been especially timely.

Economic Analysis

Data collection and analysis has indicated that establishing a cost to benefit relationship for funded conservation practices will be difficult and, in large part, related to proximity to the cultural practice. Benefits and/or impacts may be detectable near a practice but be difficult to measure a few miles away and they may be particularly difficult to detect if a major impoundment is present.

Farmer Adoption

The following is a list of outreach activities associated with this SARE project.

Sept. 17, 1997 – Met with the Oconee River Soil and Water Conservation District

Jan. 28, 1998 – Met with the Jackson County, GA Environmental Quality Improvement Program workgroup.

January, 1998 – URL established to facilitate transfer of documents and information related to ORBACE

Nov 12, 1999 – Discussed my research on the Upper Oconee with members of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network (UOWN) (Nov 12, 1999; May 30, 2000).

April 22, 2000 – Presented research at River Rendezvous volunteer water quality sampling in Athens, GA.

May 22, 2000 – Presentation of results; Fisher, D.S., D.M. Endale, and J.L. Steiner. 2000. Farm ponds and associated riparian buffers for limiting the movement of E. coli and enterococci bacteria from grazinglands. p. 24. Riparian Buffer Conference. 22 May. McKimmon Center, NCSU, Raleigh, NC.

September 1, 2000 – A report on the first years results of the research on the Upper Oconee Watershed was sent to participants and made available to members of UOWN as a newsletter entitled the ORBACE Update.

April 22, 2001 – Participated in the Annual River Rendezvous and provided laboratory analysis for microbial populations for this volunteer river watch event. We have also provided quarterly support to the Upper Oconee Watershed Network’s volunteer sampling efforts by providing microbial analyses.

January 29, 2002 – Gave an invited presentation to the Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists (Ft. Worth, Jan 29 & 30) on methods for conducting watershed scale research used in SARE Project.

April 22, 2002 – Provided laboratory analysis of microbe populations for the Upper Oconee Watershed Network during their Annual River Rendezvous. Have provided quarterly support to the Upper Oconee Watershed Network’s volunteer sampling efforts by providing microbial analyses.

May 12, 2002 – Presented research at Oconee County’s Environmental Awareness Day.

May 29, 2002 – Presented our research results at meeting of volunteer organization known as the Upper Oconee Watershed Network.

May 31, 2002 – Participated in and presented research results to producers at the Grazing and the Environment Field Day sponsored by the Conservation Center.

From 2001 – Present I have participated in the TMDL Advisory Group organized by the GA Conservancy to provide guidance in the development of criteria for surface water quality in Georgia.

ORBACE Updates

A newsletter has been made available to participants and others interested in the results of this work and a copy has been included in the appendix materials. In addition, results have been made available on the www at:


Areas needing additional study

The impact of position in the landscape relative to expected benefits from the installation of conservation practices has been addressed in this research project. However, this problem is complex and additional work in this area is warranted to help provide the database needed to improve model predictions of nutrients and fecal indicator organisms.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.