Water Quality Program

Helping people plant trees for water quality


Nutrient pollution in our waterways has reached a critical level. Green, algae-filled lakes and streams are common during the summer months in the Midwestern US. Downstream, a dead-zone has developed in the Gulf of Mexico as a direct result of nutrient run-off from farm fields into the Mississippi River Basin. Planting trees on farms and along shorelines can reduce nutrient pollution in local lakes, rivers, and streams. Our Water Quality Program establishes demonstration farms around the Great Lakes, and shares research and education on the potential for agroforestry systems to meet the challenge of the water crisis.

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Savanna Institute Program Manager Devon Brock-Montgomery introduces you to water quality work already in progress.

Sustainable farming practices include trees

Trees planted along waterways stabilize the soil during flooding. Riparian buffers are strips of permanent vegetation planted along waterways that reduce erosion and retain nutrients in the soil during floods.

Trees slow farm field runoff during heavy rainfall. Farmers use alley cropping to cultivate annual crops with tree crops in regularly spaced rows and silvopasture to plant trees and forage in livestock pastures. Agroforestry practices slow runoff and encourage infiltration, protecting the land from heavy rains. 

Learn more in our Understanding Agroforestry Infographics.

5 Facts about Water Quality

  • Lake Superior is warming at three times the global average,  and the second fastest in the world. Lake Erie’s algal bloom lasted well into the fall this year (Alliance for the Great Lakes)

  • People who swim in HABs (harmful algal blooms) can experience irritation of the skin, eyes, throat, nose, and lungs. (CDC)

  • In Lake Erie, 70% of nutrients in runoff are from agricultural fertilizer application, with the remaining 30% from animal manure. (IJC)

Photo by Randall Hyman, GLPF

a hazelnut bush in summer

Photo by Randall Hyman, GLPF

Why Agroforestry?

We know that the deep roots of perennial crops hold nutrients in farm fields better than annual crops. When farmers plant tree crops and other perennials on their farms, they slow runoff, encourage infiltration, and reduce erosion during heavy rains. It is important that every farm considers how water moves across the landscape, and we’re here to help put trees to work for water quality. Together with our partners, we’re creating the demonstration farms, adoption toolkits, and community-building events needed to transition agricultural land to agroforestry. 

three apprentices and a farmer sit on the porch of a white house

Education and Outreach  

With financial support from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Savanna Institute and its partners are investing heavily in demonstrating the potential for widespread agroforestry to impact an entire watershed.

Demonstration farms being established in Michigan and Wisconsin will be educational hubs for farmers and community members to learn more about the water quality benefits of farming with trees. Here we will conduct research into agroforestry’s full impact on an ecosystem. A series of toolkits created by partners will empower landowners and farmers with best practices and lessons learned on leasing, financing, and tree selection. Plus, our team of media specialists will document the process of establishing a variety of agroforestry practices in different contexts. With this broad set of resources, we will guide farmers each step along their path to planting trees for water quality. 




Ozaukee-Washington Land Trust 

Riveredge Nature Center 


Chiwara Permaculture Research and Education 

Newaygo County Conservation District 

Oceana County Conservation District 

Kropscott Environmental Farm Environmental Center 


Farm Commons 

Croatan Institute 

Savanna Institute 

Great Lakes Protection Fund 

Research In Progress

Savanna Institute’s Research Team monitors water and soil quality to quantify agroforestry’s impact on the ecosystem. At Demonstration Farms in Wisconsin and Illinois, we’ve dug 100 cores each one meter deep to track soil carbon. This research will help inform standards for how climate mitigation is quantified across carbon markets.

You can volunteer for stream monitoring at our Spring Green Campus in Wisconsin.


a hazelnut bush in summer

Technical Service Program

Get help planning your agroforestry system. Contact a community agroforester to ask more about how you can adopt perennial agriculture on the land in your care.

“I trust Savanna Institute to be careful stewards of land that’s important to me and my family, and to develop and spread farming practices that will increase biodiversity and fight climate change.”

                                                                  – Jack L., Donor

Deep-rooted long-lived tree crops improve the soil, help retain water, improve biodiversity, sequester carbon, and mitigate the effects of floods. Tree crops help us heal our climate, regenerate our communities, and share stories and values across generations. It is time to transform American agriculture through tree crops.