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A conceptual framework for effectively anticipating water-quality changes resulting from changes in agricultural activities

January 10, 2018

Agricultural activities can affect water quality and the health of aquatic ecosystems; many water-quality issues originate with the movement of water, agricultural chemicals, and eroded soil from agricultural areas to streams and groundwater. Most agricultural activities are designed to sustain or increase crop production, while some are designed to protect soil and water resources. Numerous soil- and water-protection practices are designed to reduce the volume and velocity of runoff and increase infiltration. This report presents a conceptual framework that combines generalized concepts on the movement of water, the environmental behavior of chemicals and eroded soil, and the designed functions of various agricultural activities, as they relate to hydrology, to create attainable expectations for the protection of—with the goal of improving—water quality through changes in an agricultural activity.

The framework presented uses two types of decision trees to guide decision making toward attainable expectations regarding the effectiveness of changing agricultural activities to protect and improve water quality in streams. One decision tree organizes decision making by considering the hydrologic setting and chemical behaviors, largely at the field scale. This decision tree can help determine which agricultural activities could effectively protect and improve water quality in a stream from the movement of chemicals, or sediment, from a field. The second decision tree is a chemical fate accounting tree. This decision tree helps set attainable expectations for the permanent removal of sediment, elements, and organic chemicals—such as herbicides and insecticides—through trapping or conservation tillage practices. Collectively, this conceptual framework consolidates diverse hydrologic settings, chemicals, and agricultural activities into a single, broad context that can be used to set attainable expectations for agricultural activities. This framework also enables better decision making for future agricultural activities as a means to reduce current, and prevent new, water-quality issues.

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