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Assessing the Impacts of Future Climate Conditions on the Effectiveness of Winter Cover Crops in Reducing Nitrate Loads into the Chesapeake Bay Watersheds Using the SWAT Model

Published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, St. Joseph, Michigan

Citation:  Transactions of the ASABE. 60(6): 1939-1955. (doi: 10.13031/trans.12390) @2017
Authors:   Sangchul Lee, Ali M. Sadeghi, In-Young Yeo, Gregory W. McCarty, W. Dean Hively
Keywords:   Future climate conditions (FCCs), SWAT, Water quality, Winter cover crops (WCCs).


Winter cover crops (WCCs) have been widely implemented in the Coastal Plain of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (CBW) due to their high effectiveness in reducing nitrate loads. However, future climate conditions (FCCs) are expected to exacerbate water quality degradation in the CBW by increasing nitrate loads from agriculture. Accordingly, the question remains whether WCCs are sufficient to mitigate increased nutrient loads caused by FCCs. In this study, we assessed the impacts of FCCs on WCC nitrate reduction efficiency in the Coastal Plain of the CBW using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT). Three FCC scenarios (2085-2098) were prepared using general circulation models (GCMs), considering three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) greenhouse gas emission scenarios. We also developed six representative WCC implementation scenarios based on the most commonly used planting dates and species of WCCs in this region. Simulation results showed that WCC biomass increased by ~58% under FCC scenarios due to climate conditions conducive to WCC growth. Prior to implementing WCCs, annual nitrate loads increased by ~43% under FCC scenarios compared to the baseline scenario (2001-2014). When WCCs were planted, annual nitrate loads were substantially reduced by ~48%, and WCC nitrate reduction efficiency was ~5% higher under FCC scenarios relative to the baseline scenario. The increase in WCC nitrate reduction efficiency varied with FCC scenario and WCC planting method. As CO2 concentrations were higher and winters were warmer under FCC scenarios, WCCs had greater biomass and thus demonstrated higher nitrate reduction efficiency. In response to FCC scenarios, the performance of less effective WCC practices (i.e., barley, wheat, and late planting) under the baseline scenario indicated a ~14% higher increase in nitrate reduction efficiency compared to WCC practices with greater effectiveness under the baseline scenario (i.e., rye and early planting) due to warmer temperatures. The SWAT simulation results indicated that WCCs were effective in mitigating nitrate loads accelerated by FCCs, suggesting the role of WCCs in mitigating nitrate loads will likely be even more important under FCCs.

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