Mississippi River Basin / Gulf Hypoxia Initiative

Gwen White
Posted on: 9/01/2017 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

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Gwen White

Project Summary

The Midwest and the Mississippi Alluvial Valley currently contribute the greatest nutrient load to the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone. Modifying the design or shifting the location of conservation practices can provide benefits for wildlife, water quality, energy and agriculture, making program dollars go farther and appeal to more land managers. The Mississippi Basin / Gulf Hypoxia Initiative (GHI), led by seven Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), created an integrated framework consisting of stakeholder-driven resource objectives and a tiered set of spatially explicit conservation strategies within five agricultural production systems in four ecological systems. Fact sheets for a dozen high impact conservation practices describe design, configuration, benefits, installation costs, metrics, programs, and research with a simplified illustration to guide technical assistance for land managers. The Precision Conservation Blueprint 1.5 is designed to align landscape planning at the whole basin scale in the water quality priority zone of the Mississippi River Basin and at the local scale (30m) for seven HUC8 pilot watersheds in the Midwest and Mississippi Alluvial Valley where nutrient loading is the highest to the Gulf. Over 200 data layers representing partners' priorities in water quality, fish and wildlife opportunity areas, and watershed management project locations combine to map the intersection of multi-sector conservation investment. These tools complement related ongoing efforts of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force, Gulf of Mexico Alliance, NRCS Mississippi River Basin Initiative, and state nutrient reduction strategies.


Farming for Fish & Shrimp

Watersheds across the Midwest and the Mississippi Alluvial Valley currently contribute the greatest nutrient load to the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, an area where oxygen levels can decrease to the point of no longer supporting aquatic species or the fishing industry that depends on them. Reducing nutrient loading from these agricultural lands may significantly address hypoxia issues at multiple scales, from harmful algal blooms in local waters to the recovering resources of the Gulf.

Multi-Sector Stakeholder Strategies

Modifying the design or shifting the location of conservation practices could make program dollars go further and appeal to more land managers by producing multi-sector benefits for wildlife, water quality, energy and agriculture.

LCCs are regional collaborations of states, federal agencies, and nongovernmental organizations that build connections across their boundaries to tackle large scale and long-term conservation challenges. Through a stakeholder-driven decision support process led by seven LCCs, the GHI created an integrated framework consisting of resource management objectives, a tiered set of conservation strategies within five agricultural production systems (corn and soybean, grazing lands, floodplain forest, rice, and cotton), and a Landscape Conservation Design spatial analysis to align work in four ecological systems (headwater fields, upland prairies, mid-sized riparian streams, and mainstem floodplains) in water quality priority zones across the Mississippi Basin.

Based on this framework, The Conservation Fund developed a prototype GIS spatial analysis that identifies “green infrastructure” opportunity areas for conservation investment at the basin scale and at a higher resolution for use by local conservation planners. Connection of cores within corridors can establish functional migratory pathways that accommodate adjustment to climate change.

Tools for Precision Conservation

Work Teams are preparing Practice Fact Sheets for a dozen standardized and emerging practices that describe design, configuration, benefits, installation costs, performance metrics, relevant programs, and recent research with simplified illustrations to guide technical assistance and consideration by land managers. The teams will refine this portfolio with additional practices.

The LCCs and Climate Science Centers support related research on human dimensions and ecosystem services that will inform conservation delivery and adoption. Additional scenario planning could forecast conditions for adaptation strategies that respond to ecological or economic drivers, evaluated with landscape-level metrics. A recent workshop reconvened researchers and technical program managers to guide refinement and implementation of these tools.

The GHI is designed to complement related ongoing efforts including the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force, NRCS Mississippi River Basin Initiative, and state nutrient reduction strategies, but with an emphasis on the ecological and social values of wildlife habitat that help upstream communities connect to downstream impacts. The GHI is focused on two main components: what to do and where to do it, forming a holistic targeting approach that allows resource managers and policy makers to identify both the conservation actions needed and the best places to target efficient and effective conservation investments on the landscape. 

Climate influences selection and adoption of practices

Most of these practices also provide a resilience function to these sectors as the climate changes. Recent research into the human dimensions perspective is exploring how practices that confer climate resilience influence adoption of these practices under different physical, social and economic conditions. Additional research is necessary to evaluate and model the impacts of climate on agricultural production approaches, adjustment of wildlife both phenologically and geographically, and the interaction of these factors on the adoption, design, and configuration of practices on the landscape.


What To Do

The component of “what to do” consists of a set of Conservation Practice Fact Sheets. Currently, there are twelve practices identified by expert teams as having the highest potential for benefiting water quality, wildlife, energy and agriculture. 

Fact Sheets describe the design and application of practices with multi-sector benefits such as:


  • Buffer Strips
  • Wetlands
  • Grassland and Grazing Management
  • Biomass Production
  • Cover Crops
  • Uplands Prescribed Fire

Upper Mississippi Basin / Midwest

  • Hydrologic Restoration
  • Drainage Water Management
  • Two-Stage Ditches

Mississippi Alluvial Valley

  • Water Diversion
  • Floodplain Reforestation
  • Vegetative Diversity

Programs can highlight these practices in conjunction with other conservation activities to efficiently invest in a multifunctional landscape.

Where To Do It

A critical component of any landscape design is mapping opportunities for conservation delivery. In the GHI, this spatial analysis takes the form of the Precision Conservation Blueprint v1.5, developed by The Conservation Fund. This analysis synthesizes over 200 layers to identify where there is an intersection in existing interests to achieve multi-sector objectives.

At a regional scale, the Blueprint combines watershed projects, wildlife conservation priority areas, water quality concerns, nutrient loading models, and more to identify a series of priority areas where opportunities for fish and wildlife, water quality, and agricultural productivity broadly overlap. At a local scale (30m), the Blueprint uses soil type, field grade, contiguous habitat, cropland value, and more to identify site specific targeting for conservation actions in HUC4 pilot watersheds where multi-sector interests are highest in the water quality priority zone of the Midwest and Mississippi Alluvial Valley. 

Outcomes and Conclusions

Users Apply Mapping to Proactive Conservation Planning at Local Scales

To date eleven diverse agencies and organizations have used the Blueprint to inform conservation investments for their programs. For example, Decatur County, Indiana, revised their County Comprehensive Plan utilizing the data layers to show how protection of locally important habitats can contribute to larger Gulf hypoxia goals. The Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Region Joint Venture utilized the Blueprint to develop a decision support map that targets waterfowl habitat conservation investments based on biological and social parameters, which are weighted by regional waterfowl stakeholders. Over this past year, The Conservation Fund made marked improvements and now have a version 1.5 that features over 75 new data layers making the Blueprint even more precise and useful for application in guiding strategic conservation for wildlife, water quality, energy, and agriculture. Staff will be developing narratives describing several user case studies. If you use the Blueprint for mapping and aligning your actions, please let us know so we can add you to the list of users and highlight your conservation strategies. 

Example Project: Lower Wabash River

These tools should be practical and pragmatic for program targeting and land management decisions. Several groups are “test driving” application of these tools in on-the-ground pilots.

As the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, the Wabash River forms the border between Indiana and Illinois, is surrounded by highly productive farmland, and contributes a hugely disproportionate nutrient load to the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, this river corridor forms a critical pathway for a unique combination of species and habitats such as migratory birds, monarch butterflies, cane brakes and bald cypress swamps, and extraordinary fish and mussel diversity.

After being approached by the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge, the LCC facilitated a locally-led stakeholder partnership to develop a landscape design for the lower Wabash floodplains and associated uplands.

Other local uses of the spatial analysis include identification of priority conservation areas within the Decatur County comprehensive plan revision, Sycamore Land Trust wetland corridor planning, and similar applications.

We Need Your Help

The development of these tools and frameworks has been collaborative from the very beginning, and we are not done yet. Next steps include integrating population objectives and models, tracking collaborative action, and supporting social capacity for implementing these practices in key locations. 


White, G. (2017). Mississippi River Basin / Gulf Hypoxia Initiative [Case study on a project of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers LCC, Plains & Prairie Potholes LCC, Upper Midwest & Great Lakes LCC, Great Plains LCC, Appalachian LCC, Gulf Coast Plains LCC, Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks LCC]. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/mississippi-river-basin-gulf-hypoxia-initiative (Last updated August 2017)

Project Contacts

Affiliated Organizations

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the premier government agency dedicated to the conservation, protection, and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats. It is the only agency in the federal government whose primary responsibility is management of these important natural resources for the American public. The Service also helps ensure a healthy environment for people through its work benefiting wildlife, and by providing opportunities for Americans to enjoy the outdoors and our shared natural heritage.

The Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) is dedicated to addressing the conservation challenges of a heavily agricultural landscape that stretches across the nation’s heartland from southwest Ohio westward across to parts of eastern Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska and northward into segments of Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota.

The sustainability of natural and cultural resources and landscapes are important to quality of life and local economies. Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) address large scale natural resource challenges that transcend political and jurisdictional boundaries and require a networked approach to conservation— holistic, collaborative, and grounded in science – to ensure the sustainability of America’s land, water, wildlife and cultural resources.

The Plains and Prairie Potholes LCC is responsible for identifying and prioritizing the scientific uncertainties and needs that can inform better conservation management. Climate change, shifts in land-use, urban expansion, agricultural changes, are all contributing stressors impacting the plains and prairie potholes landscape. Research supported by the LCC is directed at maximizing habitat quality within key ecosystems from palustrine wetlands, native grasslands and restored grasslands to sage prairie and riparian habitat and river systems.

The mission of the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative is to lead the development, facilitation and integration of science and management to ensure strategic natural resource conservation on the Great Plains.

The Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative is a science and management partnership to protect the valued resources and biological diversity of the Appalachian region, sustain the benefits provided by healthy and resilient ecosystems to human communities, and help natural systems adapt to large landscape-level stressors and those stressors that may be magnified by the changing climate.

The mission of the GCPO LCC is to:

The Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative was established in 2011 and is based out of Lafayette, Louisiana. It is part of a network of 22 similar partnerships throughout the United States and our neighboring countries.