This study examined conservation easements and their effectiveness at reducing phosphorus and solids transport to streams. The U.S. Geological Survey cooperated with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and worked collaboratively with the Hawk Creek Watershed Project to examine the West Fork Beaver Creek Basin in Renville County, which has the largest number of Reinvest In Minnesota land retirement contracts in the State (as of 2013). Among all conservation easement programs, a total of 24,218 acres of agricultural land were retired throughout Renville County, and 2,718 acres were retired in the West Fork Beaver Creek Basin from 1987 through 2012. Total land retirement increased steadily from 1987 until 2000. In 2000, land retirement increased sharply because of the Minnesota River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, then leveled off when the program ended in 2002.
Streamflow data were collected during 1999 through 2011, and total phosphorus and total suspended solids data were collected during 1999 through 2012. During this period, the highest peak streamflow of 1,320 cubic feet per second was in March 2010. Total phosphorus and total suspended solids are constituents that tend to increase with increases in streamflow. Annual flow-weighted mean total-phosphorus concentrations ranged from 0.140 to 0.759 milligrams per liter, and annual flow-weighted mean total suspended solids concentrations ranged from 21.3 to 217 milligrams per liter. Annual flow-weighted mean total phosphorus and total suspended solids concentrations decreased steadily during the first 4 years of water-quality sample collection. A downward trend in flow-weighted mean total-phosphorus concentrations was significant from 1999 through 2008; however, flow-weighted total-phosphorus concentrations increased substantially in 2009, and the total phosphorus trend was no longer significant. The high annual flow-weighted mean concentrations for total phosphorus and total suspended solids in 2009 were affected by outlier concentrations documented in March 2009.
Agricultural land-retirement data only were available through 2008; therefore, it was not possible to compare total phosphorus and total suspended solids concentrations to agricultural land-retirement data for 2009–11. A downward trend in annual flow-weighted mean total-phosphorus concentrations was related significantly to annual land retirement for 1999–2008. The relation between annual flow-weighted mean total suspended solids concentration and annual land retirement was not statistically significant for 1999–2008. If land-retirement data had been available for 2009–11, it is possible that the relation between total phosphorus and land retirement would no longer be evident because of the marked increase in flow-weighted concentrations during 2009. Alternatively, the increase in annual flow-weighted mean total-phosphorus concentrations during 2009–11 may be because of other factors, including industrial discharges, increases in drain tile installation, changes in land use including decreases in agricultural land retirement after 2008, increases in erosion, increases in phosphorus applications to fields, or unknown causes. Inclusion of land-retirement effects in agency planning along with other factors adds perspective with regard to the broader picture of interdependent systems and allows agencies to make informed decisions on the benefits of perpetual easements compared to limited duration easements.