Photo: Tim McCabe, "Conservation stripcropping in northeast Iowa," 1999, NRCS Photo Gallery.

Soil is the foundation of Wisconsin’s agriculture.  Soil particles eroding from agricultural lands both degrade the soil resource, potentially reducing agricultural productivity, and pollute rivers and streams, which impacts Wisconsin aquatic ecosystems. Decades of technical, educational, and financial assistance to land managers have in many places substantially reduced this form of non-point pollution. However, progress is often slowed or stalled by decreases in government attention and oversight, and by evolving agricultural practices for both food and fuel. Recently, rising demand for agricultural products and changing precipitation patterns threaten to eliminate or even reverse progress toward minimizing soil erosion impacts on water quality. 

Soil Conservation in Wisconsin

Grass waterway systems are one method to prevent soil erosion.
Photo: Charlie Rahm,, NRCS Photo Gallery.

At the core of soil conservation in Wisconsin and the United States is voluntary adoption of appropriate practices by farmers. Beginning in the 1930s the federal government became engaged in the problem through research, demonstration, education, and financial and technical assistance to individual farmers. To this day governments at the federal, state, and county level provide technical assistance, such as engineering design and consultations, and financial incentives, known as “cost-sharing.” As in the 1930s, individual farmers differ remarkably in their willingness to adopt soil-conserving behaviors. The state of Wisconsin has some limited power to intervene in the face of egregious soil erosion, but this is rarely exercised.

Three levels of government as well as civil society are involved in soil conservation.  The government agencies engaged in encouraging soil stewardship in Wisconsin are the United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS); Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP); Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR); and Land Conservation Departments based in county governments (LCDs).  Increasingly, civil society organizations, such as the River Alliance of Wisconsin and Trout Unlimited, are playing a role in connecting farmers with government-provided assistance and cost-share funds. The roles and relationships of these actors overlap and slowly evolve with changing laws.

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Potential Risks

Soil erosion from heavy rains can be prevented.
Photo: Lynn Betts,, 1999, NRCS Photo Gallery.

The United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service conducts the National Resource Inventory (NRI) to assess land use and soil erosion across the nation.  In 2003 some 31,754 tons of soil were estimated to have eroded from Wisconsin fields; only 9 other states had greater total water erosion. The average annual rate for the entire state was 3.1±0.2 tons/acre.  In the absence of appropriate adaptation actions, we expect that soil erosion in Wisconsin will more than double by 2050, compared with the 1990s, as a result of predicted changes in hydro-climate.

Given the contexts of changing hydroclimate and increased demand for agricultural commodities, reducing soil erosion and the resulting impacts on aquatic ecosystems will likely require greater focus on implementation and maintenance of both structural (terraces, grassed waterways) and non-structural (conservation tillage) soil conservation practices. This work, in turn, depends on government commitment to human resources, data resources and on-going monitoring, better tools for cost-benefit analysis, and the political will to enforce existing regulations.

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Adaptation Strategies

Farmers and an NRCS District Conservationist check on the species thriving in a buffer strip.
Photo: Bob Nichols,, 2000, NRCS Photo Gallery.

Our adaptation strategies seek to adjust and strengthen the public-private collaboration that since the 1930s has been central to minimizing soil erosion. Experience demonstrates that land managers hold a wide range of attitudes about their roles in stewardship of soil and water resources. Today’s agricultural economy often forces farmers to make short-term decisions that may be necessary for survival of their business, but are not protective of soil and water resources. Additionally, a substantial fraction of croplands (about 30% in 2007, Census of Agriculture) are now leased on short-term contracts, so operators lack incentives for investments in soil conservation. Thus we conclude that continued, if not expanded, government involvement in soil conservation is required.

Our adaptation strategies address what we believe are four major components of any soil conservation effort: Strategy, Practices, Monitoring, and Evaluation.


  • Develop new metrics for sustainability of soil and water resources. 
  • Fully utilize and expand cross-compliance provisions and recognize that additional regulatory tools are required.
  • Provide the human resources necessary for facilitating broad adoption of the practices we know can reduce soil erosion, and to assure compliance with existing rules.
  • Expand watershed-based programming efforts, with appropriate targeting of hydrologic units, farms, and fields. 


  • Expand watershed-based programming efforts, with appropriate targeting of hydrologic units, farms, and fields. 
  • Research strategies for objectively and efficiently identifying portions of the landscape that should be maintained in healthy, full-cover perennial vegetation, and develop programs to encourage returning these areas to this condition. 
  • Undertake research to enable more inclusive accounting of the costs and benefits of soil management choices. 

Changes in 7-day storm events with greater than one-year recurrence intervals from 1931–96. Shaded circles indicate upward trends while open circles indicate downward trends. The magnitude of the trend is given in terms of the percent increase or decrease over the period 1931–96, relative to the 1931–96 mean. As indicated by the key, the magnitude of the trend is linearly proportional to the radius of the circle.

Figure: Kunkel, K.E., K. Adsager, and D.R. Easterling, 1999, Long-Term Trends in Extreme Precipitation Events over the Conterminous United States and Canada, Journal of Climate 12: 2515-2527.


  • Develop systematic, transparent, and accessible monitoring programs for soil conservation and its impacts on water quality.


  • Conduct more evaluation work related to soil conservation. 
  • Initiate an ongoing analysis of how bioenergy policies and changing production practices influences efficacy of soil conservation programs.

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If you would like to know more about the Soil Conservation Working Group or how climate change may affect Wisconsin' soils, you may e-mail Bill Bland