Runoff Risk Introduction - NOAA Runoff Risk
What are Runoff Risk tools?
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Runoff Risk refers to real-time decision support tools that aim to provide farmers and producers actionable guidance about when to avoid nutrient applications in the short-term due to unfavorable environmental conditions. These tools have evolved from successful federal, state, and academic collaboration over the years and are based on the real-time weather and hydrologic modeling capabilities of the National Weather Service. More background on the models used can be found in the How Runoff Risk Works and Model Background pages above.
Why are Runoff Risk tools needed?
There are many examples of water quality degradation due to excess nutrients across the country. Impacts are found across the spectrum from small streams, ponds, and shallow groundwater wells all the way up to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in the Great Lakes and the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Degraded water quality has tremendous impacts on human and environmental health as well as economic impact in many regions. These impacts are the driving force for significant research and funding by government, universities, and the private sector to address water quality issues due to excess nutrient loads. A large portion of the excess nutrients affecting the Nation's water bodies are sourced from agricultural lands. Applying nutrients is a fact of business in these regions and are essential for ensuring highly productive yields. For this reason there has been a lot of research on determining the best conservation practices to help producers maximize yields and minimize nutrient and sediment losses from their fields.
The 4R's concept for nutrient sustainability. Image from: http://www.nutrientstewardship.com/4rs/
There are many conservation practices being developed to apply the right amount of nutrients the right way as well as modifying the land to help keep the nutrients on the fields for the crops to use them when needed. The 4R's is a common model being promoted for application methods and examples of landscape modification include no-till, cover crops, grass waterways, etc.
Where does Runoff Risk fit within this growing toolbox for farmers and producers?
Runoff Risk expands on the typical "Right Time" message that is generally crop-centric and focused on ensuring nutrients are applied shortly before crops need them. Generally, if weather related guidance is provided it is static, generic advice such as "don't apply before 1 inch of rain". This type of information is a good starting point, however conditions across agricultural areas are dynamic and therefore real-time modeling can provide more accurate and actionable guidance instead of static advice that doesn't reflect the current and future conditions. Further, a lot of field activity, not just nutrient applications, occurs during times of the year where fields can be susceptible to runoff and poor weather and soil conditions (late winter, spring, and fall for example).
What are Runoff Risk tools trying to accomplish?
Ultimately, the goal of Runoff Risk tools are to help inform the short-term field management decisions of producers and farmers so that nutrients are not applied shortly before runoff is expected to occur and transported into nearby waterbodies. The focus of Runoff Risk is to avoid applications before runoff and therefore reduce the magnitude of acute loss events. It is understood that many fields have a built up reservoir of excess nutrients in the soil profile and when runoff occurs there is going to be nutrient loss (a chronic long-term problem). Runoff Risk wants to help producers avoid creating acute events by transporting freshly applied nutrients from their fields. Over time the use of Runoff Risk tools can contribute both environmental and an economic benefits by reducing nutrient loads and saving producers the cost of lost nutrient applications.
Are Runoff Risk tools meant to be a regulatory tool?
No, runoff risk tools are meant to be only decision support guidance. They are based on weather and hydrologic models that have limits in spatial scale and physical representation of reality. Further they incorporate the forecasting element with uncertainty in weather models included into the uncertainty of Runoff Risk forecast. Farmers and producers are ultimately responsible for their decisions and have a deep understanding of their fields and their management practices. By reviewing Runoff Risk as part of their daily routine, farmers and producers can be alerted of possible poor conditions out to 10 days in the future. If they see something they didn't expect ("why is my field red in 3 days?") they can investigate and make backup plans. Perhaps they divert applications to safer fields that week, or just wait until after the threat has passed.
Where are Runoff Risk tools currently available?
The first Runoff Risk tool was developed in collaboration with the state of Wisconsin starting back in 2011. That tool was a proof of concept (version 1) that proved to be a very successful collaboration among state agencies, universities, other federal agencies, and private industry partners. The success of this tool caught on and in 2014 the North Central River Forecast Center partnered up with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) which has provided several years of funding to help develop an enhanced Runoff Risk (version 2) across the Great Lakes. Currently there are active partnerships with working groups and active tools in four states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and Michigan.
It is important to note that although Runoff Risk tools rely on real-time National Weather Service models, the tools are actually owned by the states. Each state working group helps set up and maintains a website to host the data, conducts training and outreach, and fields all inquires about the tool. There remains an effort to maintain regional consistency although some minor changes are implemented by the states.
There is currently capacity to produce Runoff Risk tools in Indiana, Illinois, and New York if state agencies or universities in those states are interested. See the Active Runoff Risk Tools tab above to find links to the state websites.