Agricultural intensification has had the undesirable effect of degrading water quality throughout the United States. Nitrate pollution presents a difficult problem for rural and urban communities, and it contributes to the immense Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Zone. Current U.S. policy prohibits regulation of agricultural runoff because it is a nonpoint source. The Raccoon River Watershed upstream of Des Moines, Iowa, USA has some of the highest nitrate levels in the nation, and the drinking water utility in Des Moines unsuccessfully pursued litigation against drainage districts in the watershed. We propose a cooperative solution between urban residents and upstream rural residents—namely, the installation of agricultural green infrastructure in the form of riparian buffers throughout the watershed enabled by the principles of water quality trading. We compare this distributed, green approach with a centralized, gray approach (i.e., building a new nitrate removal facility at the drinking water utility). Using terrain analysis, we determined that first-order streams are the most fitting location for riparian buffers. We estimate the buffer installation to cost between $155–$185 million; maintenance of the current nitrate removal facility will cost $72 million, while a new facility could cost up to $184 million. Riparian buffer installation offers more indirect, non-quantified benefits than maintaining or building new centralized, gray treatment (e.g., living-wage jobs and in-stream water quality improvement). Our analysis could act as a model for water quality trading and distributed agricultural green infrastructure in other communities facing similar water quality challenges.
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