Continuing Support for the Great Lakes Region Runoff Risk Decision Support Tool

Runoff Risk Decision Support is a real-time forecasting guidance that gives farmers information about when to apply fertilizers to their fields.  Fertilizer application generally occurs during the winter and spring, the riskiest times of year for runoff from rain and snowmelt.  In fact, a significant percentage of annual nutrient losses can occur from only a few large runoff events per year.  The information provided by Runoff Risk helps farmers ensure that fertilizer and manure stay on the fields, instead of washing off into waterways.  Relying on NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) modeling, on-farm research data, and multi-partner collaboration, this tool offers a science-based approach to nutrient application timing.

Many of the nation’s lakes and streams suffer from water quality problems caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, key components of fertilizers.  These nutrients can concentrate in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico, contributing to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and hypoxia (low oxygen levels), and causing negative economic and environmental impacts.  Both the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force and the U.S. and Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement call for substantial nutrient load reductions from up-stream states, due to the increasing severity of public health and ecosystem impacts.

Runoff Risk Decision Support is not regulatory.  It is a beneficial tool developed to help farmers make informed decisions on the best time to apply fertilizer to their fields.  This, in turn, keeps more fertilizer on the fields and out of streams and lakes, saving farmers time and money on expensive reapplication.

How Runoff Risk Decision Support works

Runoff Risk Decision Support was first developed in 2008 in the state of Wisconsin, in response to a previous winter and spring season punctuated with contaminated runoff events.  Collaboration between federal, state, university and agricultural partners has been essential in addressing the complex issue of nutrient application timing.  Forecast models, used by NOAA’s NWS North Central River Forecast Center, incorporate forecast precipitation, temperature, snowmelt and soil conditions up to ten days into the future.  The resulting information is used by state groups to determine risk levels and develop guidance for farmers based on observations collected at the field scale.  State working groups then create maps with this important information,and develop websites where producers in their states can access these maps.  Again, it is important to note that Runoff Risk Decision Support supplements decisions, and is not promoted as a regulatory tool.

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Through funding provided by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), NOAA is expanding and improving Runoff Risk Decision Support for other states across the Great Lakes region. In addition to Wisconsin, development is proceeding in Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio (shown in red), with testing commencing in spring 2017. Illinois, Indiana and the Lake Ontario watershed of New York state (shown in blue) will begin development later in 2017. Lake Erie is of particular concern, as it is an agriculturally intense watershed and current priority area for action on HABs. Ongoing research will help determine the agricultural, economic and environmental impacts of the tool on reducing the amount of nutrients reaching Lake Erie.

runoff risk map
Map of the Great Lakes states showing areas where Runoff Risk Decision Support is planned or already in development. (National Weather Service North Central River Forecast Center)

The demand for Runoff Risk Decision Support is expected to grow as awareness of its capabilities increases, and as more attention becomes focused on nutrient pollution impacts to the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. The state working groups testing and expanding this product hope to continuously incorporate new research and models to enhance its usefulness to farmers.

FY 2023: $20,000

FY 2022: $75,000

FY 2021: $75,000

FY 2020: $75,000

FY 2019: $200,000

FY 2014: $376,000

To view an educational video about Runoff Risk Decision Support, please visit our YouTube Channel.