Abstract. The Red River is one of the largest contributing sources of discharge and nutrients to the world's 10th largest freshwater lake, Lake Winnipeg. Conversion of large areas of annual cropland to perennial forage has been proposed as a strategy to reduce both flooding and nutrient export to Lake Winnipeg. Such reductions could occur either via a reduction in the concentration of nutrients in runoff or through changes in the basin-scale hydrology, resulting in a lower water yield and the concomitant export of nutrients. This study assessed the latter mechanism by using the physically based Cold Regions Hydrological Modelling platform to examine the hydrological impacts of land use conversion from annual crops to perennial forage in a subbasin of the La Salle River basin in Canada. This basin is a typical agricultural subbasin in the Red River Valley, characterised by flat topography, clay soils, and a cold subhumid, continental climate. Long-term simulations (1992–2013) of the major components of water balance were compared between canola and smooth bromegrass, representing a conversion from annual cropping systems to perennial forage. An uncertainty framework was used to represent a range of fall soil saturation status (0 % to 70 %), which governs the infiltration to frozen soil in the subsequent spring. The model simulations indicated that, on average, there was a 36.5 ± 6.6 % (36.5 ± 7.2 mm) reduction in annual cumulative discharge and a 29.9 ± 16.3 % (2.6 ± 1.6 m3 s−1) reduction in annual peak discharge due to forage conversion over the assessed period. These reductions were driven by reduced overland flow 52.9 ± 12.8 % (28.8 ± 10.1 mm), increased peak snowpack (8.1 ± 1.5 %, 7.8 ± 1.6 mm), and enhanced infiltration to frozen soils (66.7 ± 7.7 %, 141.5 ± 15.2 mm). Higher cumulative evapotranspiration (ET) from perennial forage (34.5 ± 0.9 %, 94.1 ± 2.5 mm) was also predicted by the simulations. Overall, daily soil moisture under perennial forage was 18.0 % (57.2 ± 1.2 mm) higher than that of crop simulation, likely due to the higher snow water equivalent (SWE) and enhanced infiltration. However, the impact of forage conversion on daily soil moisture varied interannually. Soil moisture under perennial forage stands could be either higher or lower than that of annual crops, depending on antecedent spring snowmelt infiltration volumes.
The Northern Great Plains is a key region to global food production. It is also a region of water stress that includes poor water quality associated with high concentrations of nutrients. Agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus loads to surface waters need to be reduced, yet the unique characteristics of this environment create challenges. The biophysical reality of the Northern Great Plains is one where snowmelt is the major period of nutrient transport, and where nutrients are exported predominantly in dissolved form. This limits the efficacy of many beneficial management practices (BMPs) commonly used in other regions and necessitates place-based solutions. We discuss soil and water management BMPs through a regional lens—first understanding key aspects of hydrology and hydrochemistry affecting BMP efficacy, then discussing the merits of different BMPs for nutrient control. We recommend continued efforts to “keep water on the land” via wetlands and reservoirs. Adoption and expansion of reduced tillage and perennial forage may have contributed to current nutrient problems, but both practices have other environmental and agronomic benefits. The expansion of tile and surface drainage in the Northern Great Plains raises urgent questions about effects on nutrient export and options to mitigate drainage effects. Riparian vegetation is unlikely to significantly aid in nutrient retention, but when viewed against an alternative of extending cultivation and fertilization to the waters’ edge, the continued support of buffer strip management and refinement of best practices (e.g., harvesting vegetation) is merited. While the hydrology of the Northern Great Plains creates many challenges for mitigating nutrient losses, it also creates unique opportunities. For example, relocating winter bale-grazing to areas with low hydrologic connectivity should reduce loadings. Managing nutrient applications must be at the center of efforts to mitigate eutrophication. In this region, ensuring nutrients are not applied during hydrologically sensitive periods such as late autumn, on snow, or when soils are frozen will yield benefits. Working to ensure nutrient inputs are balanced with crop demands is crucial in all landscapes. Ultimately, a targeted approach to BMP implementation is required, and this must consider the agronomic and economic context but also the biophysical reality.