Protecting groundwater: An assessment of hydrophysical and social risks

Land use and climate projections point to water futures in Minnesota that include scenarios of increased nitrate contamination in groundwater. Given the coupled impacts of land conversion and climate change on water resources, information about future water quality scenarios is needed to anticipate and adapt to changing groundwater conditions. However, while hydrophysical monitoring and water technologies have evolved significantly, comprehensive assessments of the human and social dimensions of water management continue to lag significantly behind. It is critical to understand how agricultural producers, who are major drivers of land use change, perceive water quality risks, make decisions about farming and conservation practices, and adapt to changes driven by climate and land use change. In this proposed project we aim to begin to unravel the complex relationships between nitrate management, groundwater hydrology, and socio-political drivers and constraints to source water protection. The overarching goal of this project is to quantify the spatial, hydrological, and social risks associated with groundwater nitrate contamination from agricultural sources. The objectives of this project are to:

1. Compile data, quantify and spatially map the risks of climate and land use change in agriculture intensive regions in Minnesota, including the effects of agriculture on nitrate loading in groundwater
2. Determine agricultural producers’ water values, beliefs, risk perceptions, and current and future behaviors under varying climate scenarios
3. Evaluate how farmers’ water nitrate risk perceptions align or misalign with best land use/climate/water quality projections.
4. Engage agricultural water users, actors, and decision makers in capacity-building workshops

To meet these objectives, we will i) administer a survey of agricultural producers to assess water values, beliefs, risk perceptions, and behaviors, ii) conduct hydrological modeling to determine climate and land use change impacts on nitrate loading and transport, and iii) engage stakeholders in interactive workshops to build capacity among water users and decision makers.

The results from our work will allow us to identify and spatially analyze nitrate contamination risks to groundwater under different climate and land-use scenarios. The project will build on existing maps and visualizations of water values by adding survey data on perceived risk to water-related ecosystem services based on new biophysical and hydrologic modeling. Project outputs will be used in stakeholder workshops to prompt conversation about the value of water to different users and to facilitate discussions of tradeoffs associated with alternative water behavior and management. Study findings will be integrated into recommendations for policies and programs such as Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources “One Watershed, One Plan” ( and the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification program ( Findings will inform the Minnesota Nutrient Reduction Strategy (2014) by integrating and visualizing important spatial, hydrologic, and social data for better land management, source water protection policies, and risk communication programming.

Project Staff: 

Principal Investigator

Amit Pradhananga, Dept. of Forest Resources, U of M,


Mae Davenport, Dept. of Forest Resources, U of M
G,-H. Crystal Ng, Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences, U of M
Bonnie Keeler, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, U of M

Project Duration: 

June 30, 2021 - June 30, 2024