Addressing Gulf Coast Ecological Concerns Through Best Management Practices and Conservation Practices - American Farmland Trust

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Addressing Gulf Coast Ecological Concerns Through Best Management Practices and Conservation Practices

Photo: Lindsey Richards, AFT

American Farmland Trust (AFT), in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture — Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), actively participates in the Petronila Creek Nutrient Reduction Initiative (PCNRI). This initiative not only aids farmers in conserving natural resources but also contributes significantly to the restoration of Baffin Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In recent decades, the Gulf of Mexico has faced various challenges, notably the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill and the emergence of dead zones spanning approximately 8,776 square miles. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, originating from diverse sources like intense rainfall, groundwater contamination, and agricultural lands, have exacerbated these issues. Following the BP settlement, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Team (GCERT) was formed to address current and future concerns. State-specific Trustee Implementation Groups (TIG), including the Texas TIG, collaborate to determine impactful projects for funding.

One of the projects selected to improve water quality in the Gulf of Mexico will be a nutrient reduction initiative conducted in three HUC-12 watersheds located in Nueces County, TX. Referred to as the Petronila Creek Nutrient Reduction Initiative (PCNRI), this effort aims to enroll 100 producers across 72,000 acres to voluntarily implement farming conservation practices that have strong potential to prevent agricultural runoff. Ongoing water quality monitoring efforts in the Petronila Creek Watershed, led by groups like Harte Research Institute and Coastal Bend and Bays Estuaries Program, will provide a foundation for determining the impacts best management practices (BMPs) and conservation practices (CPs) will have on the watershed.

The saying “everything is bigger in Texas” holds true, especially in the face of its agricultural challenges. Along coastal regions, the absence of an annual hard freeze allows pests and soil pathogens to thrive year-round. The competition from invasive species is a significant concern due to their aggressive ruderal habits, establishing quickly in disturbed soils and spreading numerous seeds. While tilling near the very edge of a field is a common method to curb weed seed spread, it inadvertently limits space for plants to act as buffers against sediment and nutrient runoff into watersheds.


Conservation Practices:
PCNRI will be promoting regionally appropriate site-specific practices such as filter strips, reduced tillage, conservation crop rotation, and nutrient management all of which are listed under NRCS’s conservation practices standards. These practices can showcase the intricate connection between coastal ecosystems and agricultural activities. Applying a combination of these practices can facilitate the conservation or protection of natural resources, reduction of nutrient and sediment runoff, improved water infiltration and stormwater retention, and improvement of soil health and water quality, offering potential economic and agronomic benefits, including cost savings and enhanced yields.

  1. Filter Strips:
    Filter strips, characterized as strips of herbaceous vegetation, play a pivotal role in cleansing overland flow. Positioned strategically along waterways, these strips effectively reduce suspended solids, contaminants, and sediment in surface waters. By acting as a natural buffer, filter strips mitigate the impact of nutrient runoff from agricultural lands, enhancing water quality and promoting the health of aquatic ecosystems. This approach not only aids in preventing the flow of pollutants into water bodies but also provides additional benefits to farmers, such as habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife for natural pest control and pollination.
  2. Precision Nutrient Management:
    Precision nutrient management involves the comprehensive regulation of plant nutrients and soil amendments. It ensures a sustainable nutrient supply for plant growth while minimizing nonpoint source pollution. Careful management of nutrient quantity, source, placement, and timing contributes to efficient organic material utilization and soil health.
  3. Reduced Tillage:
    Reduced tillage, a practice involving minimal soil disturbance and year-round crop residue retention on the soil surface, enhances soil quality and productivity. It promotes the decomposition of organic matter through the activities of earthworms and other soil organisms, necessitating continual assessment of residue coverage and orientation.
  4. Conservation Crop Rotation:
    Conservation crop rotation, as a planned cycle of various crops on the same land, serves the purpose of reducing erosion, maintaining soil health, improving moisture efficiency, controlling nutrient runoff, mitigating pest issues, and more, particularly in croplands where at least one annual crop is part of the rotation.

Supporting farmers:
The question arises: why would a farmer invest in a non-cash crop? Well, post-harvest is a critical time for fostering beneficial ecological interactions and preventing an environment conducive to pest proliferation with minimal competition. The need to establish year-round food sources for predatory insects and pollinators is particularly vital in landscapes like Texas, where agricultural clearance has left minimal primary habitat.

Initiatives like PCNRI play a pivotal role in alleviating the financial burden on farmers, who often bear private costs for public services such as clean air, water, and healthy soil. Participating in such programs becomes a strategic approach for farmers to ease financial pressures, reduce overall costs, and simultaneously contribute to environmental well-being, promoting a resilient food system during severe weather events.

Partnerships and Collaborators:
AFT and NRCS collaborate with key partners such as Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, Harte Research Institute, Nueces River Authority, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation District, and TAMUCC Center for Coastal Studies. These partnerships contribute to the success of projects focused on monitoring and improving water quality within the Petronila Creek Watershed.

Petronila Creek plays a crucial role in enriching Baffin Bay and supporting diverse wildlife and commercial fishing activities. AFT is dedicated to contributing to the restoration of the bay, assisting farmers in conserving natural resources, and ensuring a sustainable impact on the gulf coast ecosystem restoration and local community.

For more information about this project, please contact

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About the Author
Lindsey Richards

Texas Gulf Coast Outreach and Education Coordinator

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