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Managing Farm Water Could Be a Key to Preserving Water Quality

By Darrin Pack - Published May 12, 2016

It was like a scene from a grade-B sci-fi movie. Over several weeks in midsummer 2014, the waters of Lake Erie off Toledo, Ohio, turned an unnaturally vivid shade of green, the result of one of largest algae blooms ever recorded in the Great Lakes.

Within days, toxins were detected at a Toledo water treatment facility and the 500,000 residents of Ohio's fourth-largest city were told to turn off their taps; the water was judged unsafe for drinking, cooking or even bathing.

Ben Reinhart thinks better farm water management could help minimize the risk of a similar disaster in the future.

Ben Reinhart and Jane Frankenberger stand along a streamPurdue University researchers Ben Reinhart and Jane Frankenberger are part of a team evaluating water retention practices as a way of protecting water quality and increasing agricultural productivity. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

"We need to look at water as a valuable resource and manage it like we manage other inputs," says Reinhart, project manager of the Purdue University-based Transforming Drainage initiative, a team of researchers, engineers, social scientists and Extension specialists from eight land-grant universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We are evaluating water retention practices as an approach not only to increase agricultural productivity but also protect water quality."

Three Practices

Harmful algal blooms like the one in Lake Erie thrive on phosphorus and nitrogen washed into rivers and streams, often by the kind of severe rainstorms and floods many parts of the Midwest experienced in 2015. Agricultural runoff is the primary source of those elements, which can also come from leaky septic systems, residential lawn and garden fertilizers and industrial waste.

Improving farm water management would help reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen entering the water system, says Jane Frankenberger, Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Transforming Drainage project.

"We often think about draining water when we have too much, but we should think about saving it for when we don't have enough," she says.

The Transforming Drainage team is investigating three practices for keeping more farm water in farm fields:

  • Controlled drainage: Water is saved in the soil and released more slowly.
  • Drainage water recycling: Storing water in on-farm ponds or reservoirs. The water can then be recirculated onto a field through irrigation.
  • Saturated buffers: Diverting drainage water from fields into subsurface laterals that slow the outflow.

Practical Considerations

All of these methods appear promising, Reinhart says, but to implement them more study is needed. Transforming Drainage researchers are investigating ways to make them practical. Producers are unlikely to adopt any technology or practice unless the benefits justify the costs.

"We are looking at how it fits into farmers' management plans," Reinhart says. "Economics will definitely be a consideration. The key is to show how we can maintain or even increase productivity while preserving the quality of the water we drink."

To learn more about the Transforming Drainage initiative, visit the website at https://transformingdrainage.org.

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