Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

New planning toolset gives farmers more options for improving water quality

28.05.2015

With agriculture increasingly on the hook to improve water quality, curb erosion, and meet other environmental goals, it only makes sense to target soil and water conservation practices to the places on the landscape where they'll do the most good. Exactly how to achieve this is the catch, but a promising new solution is now at the ready, thanks to research led by the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and Environmental Defense Fund.

Writing in the current issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality, the team describes its Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF): a systematic approach to identifying the best options for reducing nutrient losses and erosion within a watershed--whether those opportunities exist in farm fields, along stream banks, or in other locations.


This image shows conservation planning in a watershed conceptualized as a pyramid. At the base are fundamental practices to improve soil health, such as crop rotations. These practices are then built upon by techniques that control water flows and nutrient losses within fields, outside of (below) fields, and finally along stream corridors (riparian management).

Credit

Figure courtesy of Tomer, M.D, et al. 2013. Combining precision conservation technologies into a flexible framework to facilitate agricultural watershed planning. J. Soil Water Conserv. 68(5):113A-120A, doi:10.2489/jswc.68.5.113A.

Its roots lie in "precision conservation," the idea of selecting the right conservation practice and placing it where it will be most effective, says lead author Mark Tomer, a USDA-ARS scientist in Iowa. However, while most attempts at this focus on one practice at a time, the ACPF looks at several.

The result is an entire inventory of conservation possibilities, from which farmers and other stakeholders within a watershed can choose their preferred options and even map out a strategy together.

That's important, because as water quality continues to decline in Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico, and other locations, people are realizing the need both for a mix of practices and a concerted push.

"These problems are continental in scope, but addressing them involves the management of thousands of small agricultural watersheds and millions of individual farm fields," Tomer says. "So I think providing for a coordinated effort among farmers and others to address water quality is really key."

Building the framework

Excess nutrients flowing from agricultural watersheds affect water quality in several ways. Nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to algal blooms and areas of oxygen-starved, or "hypoxic," zones in downstream water bodies. High nitrate levels also make water unfit for drinking.

But the measures farmers can take to address these problems aren't always apparent. Moreover, while most farmers already engage in conservation, says Tomer, they often only target the most obvious problems on their own lands, such as erosion.

To build on those individual efforts, Tomer and the team began their research in 2012 by creating criteria for siting conservation practices in a suite of optimal locations within a watershed. The criteria are based on information like soil type and land use, and the presence of tile drainage. But what really makes them possible are extremely detailed, topographic maps derived from LiDAR surveys of the ground surface. So fine is the resolution, says Tomer, the technology even allows the height of stream banks to be estimated.

While producing the siting criteria was a critical step, however, the group soon realized this wasn't terribly useful on its own. "We ended up with a list of practices with no flow or overarching concept to guide decisions about their use," Tomer says. That's where the framework comes in.

The framework is basically a pyramid, he explains, with cover crops and other crucial soil management practices at its base. The next level up focuses on options for curbing runoff and nutrient losses within farm fields: Which fields, for example, are most suited to controlled drainage systems or grassed waterways?

Next, the ACPF pinpoints the prime spots for conservation practices outside of fields (nutrient removal wetlands, for instance). And, lastly, it identifies the prospects for reducing both surface and subsurface losses of nutrients and sediments along stream and river corridors.

"So you can think of it as a continuum of opportunities," Tomer says, starting with essential soil health practices that every farmer wants to use, and moving up to more specialized--and, sometimes, more expensive--technologies that should be installed only where they'll give the most benefit.

Impacts on production

Something else users can calculate is how much cropland will need to come out of production to make way for conservation installations. In the work in JEQ, the researchers sited locations for four practices in two test watersheds in Iowa and Illinois, creating different combinations of the techniques across the landscape, called scenarios. For each scenario, they then asked how many farm acres would have to be sacrificed to meet their chosen water quality target: the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goal of a 40% drop in nitrogen.

In both watersheds they found the target could be feasibly met at the expense of just 3-4% of total cropland. Plus, the ACPF asks whether practices can be placed in sequence, taking the pressure off any single approach to improve water quality. "So if you've got several different practices, they're well-distributed around the watershed, and they don't take a lot of land out of production, you should have something farmers can live with," Tomer says.

At the same time, the ACPF results are never prescriptive, he adds. Instead, they're meant to spark discussion and collaboration. "I think the most important thing about this," he says, "is that it's a way to help farmers understand their options."

###

The research was funded in part by a USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant to the Environmental Defense Fund. The ACPF has been developed into an ArcGIS toolbox that will be publicly available on the North Central Region Water Network's website this fall.

View the two open access JEQ papers describing the ACPF:

https://www.agronomy.org/publications/jeq/abstracts/44/3/754

https://www.agronomy.org/publications/jeq/abstracts/44/3/768

Journal of Environmental Quality doi:10.2134/jeq2014.09.0386

Susan V. Fisk | EurekAlert!

More articles from Agricultural and Forestry Science:

nachricht Plasma-zapping process could yield trans fat-free soybean oil product
02.12.2016 | Purdue University

nachricht New findings about the deformed wing virus, a major factor in honey bee colony mortality
11.11.2016 | Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien

All articles from Agricultural and Forestry Science >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Will Earth still exist 5 billion years from now?

08.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Oxygen can wake up dormant bacteria for antibiotic attacks

08.12.2016 | Health and Medicine

Newly discovered bacteria-binding protein in the intestine

08.12.2016 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>