Surface water quality and cropping systems sustainability under a changing climate in the Upper Mississippi River Basin
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Agricultural nonpoint source pollution is the main source of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) in the intensely row-cropped Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMRB) stream system and is considered the primary cause of the northern Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. A point of crucial importance in this region is therefore how intensive corn (Zed mays L.)-based cropping systems for food and fuel production can be sustainable and coexist with a healthy water environment, not only under existing climate conditions but also under a changed climate in the future. To address this issue, a UMRB integrated modeling system has been built with a greatly refined 12-digit subbasin structure based on the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) water quality model, which is capable of estimating landscape and in-stream water and pollutant yields in response to a wide array of alternative cropping and/or management strategies and climatic conditions. The effects of the following four agricultural management scenarios on crop production and pollutant loads exported from the cropland of the UMRB to streams and rivers were evaluated: (1) expansion of continuous corn across the entire basin, (2) adoption of no-till on all corn and soybean ( Glycine max L.) fields in the region, (3) substitution of the traditional continuous corn and corn-soybean rotations with an extended five-year rotation consisting of corn, soybean, and three years of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.), and (4) implementation of a winter cover crop within the baseline rotations. The effects of each management scenario were evaluated both for current climate and a projected midcentury (2046 to 2065) climate from a General Circulation Model (GCM). All four scenarios behaved similarly under the historical and future climate, generally resulting in reduced erosion and nutrient loadings to surface water bodies compared to the baseline agricultural management. Continuous corn was the only scenario which resulted in increased N pollution while no-till was the most environmentally effective and able to sustain production at almost the same levels. Rye (Secale cereale L.) cover crop within the fallow period was also effective in reducing erosion and both sediment-bound and soluble forms of nutrients. The results indicated that alternative management practices could reduce sediment, N, and P exports from UMRB cropland by up to 50% without significantly affecting yields. Results for the climate change scenario showed that the effectiveness of the management scenarios was strongly linked to the reduced water availability predicted under the future climate, which assisted in mitigating pollutant transport, although with a small loss of production.