How Do Soil and Water Conservation Agencies Adapt to Extreme Storm Events?

Contact the authors

Chloe Wardropper, assistant professor, Department of Natural Resources and Society, University of Idaho,

Adena Rissman, Associate Professor, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, UW–Madison,

Soil and water conservation professionals are responsible for advising farmers and other land managers about soil health and water quality. They are on the front lines of adaptation to extreme storms that cause soil erosion, flooding, and nutrient loss from farms, roads, and other land uses.

We surveyed staff who work in soil and water conservation department (or district) offices in Upper Mississippi River Basin states in 2016 to better understand how and why conservationists have adapted to extreme storm events. The survey had a 43 percent response rate with 276 staffers responding to our survey from seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The majority of respondents thought that increases in large storms would have “some” to “a great deal” of negative impact on landowners and operators (93 percent WI, 90 percent regional), as well as on water quality (98 percent in Wisconsin, 90 percent regional). In response to the impacts of these storms, most respondents’ offices have made changes to conservation planning and implementation (see figure 1).

These maps show that Wisconsin is projected to have an increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation days.
Figure 1: Response to the question “What changes, if any, has your office made related to the impacts of extreme storm events on water quality? Choose all that apply.” The percentage of respondents who indicated “yes” is shown. There were 276 respondents. View a larger version of this graphic
These maps show that Wisconsin is projected to have an increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation days.
Prairie Creek; image courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Conservation staffers were “somewhat” to “quite a bit” concerned about the impacts of climate change on the county where they work, on average. However, about one-quarter (25 percent in Wisconsin, 25 percent regional) were only “a little” to “not at all” concerned.

Staff who were more concerned about climate change were more likely to work in offices that provide updated informational material for landowners, discuss options with state staff, and update planning documents dealing with large storm events. Staff with high climate change concern were no more likely to work in offices doing expanded cover crop and stream buffer programs or increased stormwater control measures.

In climate change adaptation there is often a delay while implementation catches up to planning. In contrast, conservation staff in our survey were more likely to have adopted certain adaptation actions like cover crops than they were to have updated their plans. But this did not always reflect conscious climate concern: We found that conservation program staff were more concerned with climate change if they were engaged with adaptation planning strategies (e.g., planning document updates) than if they were involved with implementing adaptations on-the-ground (e.g., expanded stream buffer installation).

Also, weather projections were more often used in offices that were both updating plans and implementing adaptation measures on the ground than they were in offices doing just one of these.

Adaptation to climate change by conservation agencies is complex and depends on the decisions of field staff in a variety of programs. Our study contributes to efforts to understand how adaptation decision-making actually works in the public sector.

Learn More About Extreme Precipitation Research at UW-Madison