Thursday, September 22, 2011

U of I research incorporates farmer perspectives on water quality

U of I research incorporates farmer perspectives on water quality

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Recently, I spoke about the technical aspect of a current U of I research project designed to address nitrate loss from farming in the Salt Fork River watershed.

This week, a report on the other main component of that project. It focuses on farm landowners and operators, especially their perceptions about water quality and their thinking on issues that might affect willingness to adopt new water management techniques. This part of the effort is led by U of I professor Courtney Flint, with important collaboration from George Czapar at the Illinois State Water Survey and others at the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Flint is a sociologist whose research focuses on rural community and regional responses to environmental disturbance or change. When we spoke, she emphasized that the development of new technology is only one step toward the goal of reducing nitrate loss, and she referred me to a favorite quote to explain what motivates her work: “All the good intentions of science and technology are meaningless unless the farmer actually uses the practices.”

Flint and her colleagues employed two instruments to document the perspectives of farmers in the Upper Salt Fork Watershed during spring and summer of 2010. They sat down for personal interviews with 40 farm operators and landowners, and they conducted a broader survey by mail.

The researchers found that most respondents felt that local water quality, which they generally associated with drinking water, is good. They were more concerned about getting water off of fields quickly than what water might be carrying as it runs off. Among the relatively small percentage of respondents who had concerns about surface water quality, most ranked sediment and municipal discharge above fertilizers as sources of problems.

The great majority of respondents reported they already employ conservation measures to reduce soil erosion and protect water quality. Topping the list of these measures were reduced or no-till planting, which together are employed by a whopping 87 percent. More than half said they have established grassed waterways to filter water that runs off the top of their fields, and many have also planted filter strips as a buffer between fields and streams. Farmers who responded also report managing nutrient applications with an eye toward preventing loss.

What factors influenced decisions about actions that might improve water quality? You might expect “bottom line” to top the list, but it actually ranked below concern with improving the farm—for its own sake, for the benefit of future generations and for the sake of good relations with neighbors. About three-fourths of those responding also cited concern for the quality of water downstream and promoting conservation of natural resources as factors in water quality management decisions.

Flint found that farmers would be most likely to modify their practices to improve water quality if they learned those practices would increase the productivity and effectiveness of their operations. They were concerned about the costs of making changes, and the possibility that changes would limit their flexibility to adapt to new conditions in the field.

Flint and her colleagues anticipate that exposure to field demonstrations of mechanisms for reducing nitrate loss (such as the one described in last week’s column) will increase the willingness of farmers to adopt them. To test that hypothesis, they will repeat their interviews and surveys late next year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An abundance of enviro activities next week

An abundance of enviro activities next week

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Have you ever enjoyed a walk at Heritage Park in Champaign? Do you value the natural areas at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana? If so, you might be interested to know of an upcoming opportunity to deepen your connection to such places.

It’s an event called National Public Lands Day, which is intended to help people learn about environmental and natural resources issues, and to provide volunteers with opportunities to improve public lands for outdoor recreation.

National Public Lands Day takes place next Saturday, September 24. It is being promoted locally by the U of I Extension’s East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program, in cooperation with the agencies that manage participating sites.

The National Public Lands Day event at Meadowbrook Park is designed with families in mind. It begins with a program of hands-on work from 9:00 – 11:00 a.m. Taking advantage of the season, Urbana Park District personnel will lead some volunteers in an expedition to collect seeds from native plants in the Meadowbrook prairie restoration. These seeds will be used to establish prairie at other sites next year. Other participants will remove invasive plants, improve trails and pick up litter. [Photo by Kim Horbas. Volunteers collect seed at Buffalo Trace Prairie near Mahomet.]

After the work wraps up, park district educators will conduct a free program that includes a guided hike with activities about invasive species and how to take care of parks. Children under 16 who are accompanied by an adult are welcome to participate in both the work and the educational program at Meadowbrook.

The National Public Lands Day event at Heritage Park in Champaign is geared more for adult volunteers. Participants there will cooperate with park district workers to remove invasive plants and do general clean up from 8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

Other events associated with National Public Lands Day will take place at a number of area sites, including the Buffalo Trace Prairie near Mahomet, the Pollinatarium on the UI campus and the Illinois Demonstration Prairie on Country Fair Drive near I-72 in Champaign.

Further details about all of the events associated with National Public Lands Day are available

You can gear up for National Public Lands Day with two special-event film screenings next week.

On Tuesday evening, the Art Theater in Champaign will host a screening of the documentary Bag It, sponsored Champaign Surplus, the Common Ground Food Coop and Prairie Rivers Network. According to promotional materials, the film “started as a documentary about plastic bags [and] evolved into a wholesale investigation into plastics and their effect on our waterways, oceans, and even our bodies.” A panel discussion following the screening will focus on how personal choices and social policy could reduce some of the negative impacts of plastics.

Tickets for Bag It are $10 and are available through all three sponsors or at the door. The film starts at 7:00 p.m.

On Thursday evening, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and the Forest Preserve Friends Foundation will present the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time at the Virginia Theatre. This is the first full-length film to treat the life and thought of Aldo Leopold, the legendary conservationist whose vision continues to inspire the modern environmental movement. After the film, UI law professor Eric Freyfogle will host a discussion about the conservation ethic Leopold articulated and the impact it has had locally.

Tickets for Green Fire are $10 general admission/$7 students and seniors, available through or at the door. Proceeds from the screening will be directed to the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s land acquisition and preservation efforts.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

U of I Researchers cooperate with local farmers on new device to improve water quality

U of I Researchers cooperate with local farmers on new device to improve water quality

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You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon known as the “Dead Zone” that occurs each summer in the Gulf of Mexico. It forms when the concentration of dissolved oxygen in a defined area falls below the threshold that will support animal life. Highly mobile organisms, such as fish, can flee as it develops, but others, including mussels and crabs, die as it overtakes them.

In August, scientists with the group that has monitored the Dead Zone since 1985 found that this year it covered an area of almost 6,800 square miles. That’s just smaller than all of Lake Ontario, and about average for recent years.

The Dead Zone is caused by an explosive summertime growth and decay of algae, which is fueled by nutrients that enter the Gulf by way of the Mississippi River. Those nutrients, primarily nitrate and phosphorous, can be traced back to a number of sources, including urban runoff and treated wastewater. But agriculture in the Midwest is far and away the largest contributor of nitrate, and tile-drained agriculture of the sort that dominates east central Illinois leaks the largest amounts.

Over the past three years, a team of researchers from the U of I led by professor Mark David has been working with local farmers to address this problem, in cooperation with a number of other agencies, including American Farmland Trust, the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

One part of their effort has been an experiment to test whether managing the flow of drainage water from fields can reduce nitrate loss. A modern tile drain is really just a buried plastic pipe with slits in it that speeds the movement of water from the soil into an adjacent waterway. Without such drainage, many fields in Illinois would remain too saturated to work in the spring and early summer. It’s generally not important to farming, however, that fields be drained year round.

The researchers have been testing a simple structure that allows a farmer to block the flow of water at the discharge end of the tile during the winter and early spring. They have found that the amount of water coming out of these tiles once they were opened was reduced by 50–75 percent, with a corresponding reduction in the amount of nitrate discharged.

What makes this method of reducing nitrate loss exciting is that the mechanism is simple and relatively cheap. It’s essentially a small, belowground reservoir with a frame where boards can be stacked to back up water to a specific level. It occupies only a very small space and doesn’t interfere with farming in any other way.

There are aspects of the system that bear further investigation—chief among them, the question of what happens to the water and nitrates that do not flow out through the tile. The researchers don’t yet know for sure whether that all just winds up in the waterway via some other route, but they’re conducting further tests to see. If this method of controlling nitrate loss proves to be as effective as it seems, it would add to a growing list of practices that have been shown to work under a variety of conditions.

What do farmers think about when deciding whether to adopt these practices? That’s another key question being investigated as part of the current project. Next week I’ll check in with U of I professor Courtney Flint to report on what she has found so far.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

U of I Researchers collaborate on seismic monitoring in southern Illinois

U of I Researchers collaborate on seismic monitoring in southern Illinois

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Would it surprise you to know there’s a slope that rivals the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains here in the Midwest?

It begins at the bottom of a geological structure called the Illinois Basin, four miles below sea level underneath southern Illinois. It tops out on a structure in Missouri called the Ozark Dome, half a mile above sea level.

Unfortunately, this impressive Prairie State slope isn’t open for climbing. That’s because the Illinois Basin isn’t empty, but rather, filled with sedimentary layers that have accumulated during the past 500 million years as the floor of the basin has sunk. In effect, the surface of the ground today is the top of the stuff that fills up the bowl.

What are the contours of this formation? How did it come to be? These are questions U of I geology professor Stephen Marshak, Tim Larson of the Illinois State Geological Survey, and colleagues at Purdue and Indiana University are keenly interested to answer. They hope to do so with information gathered by a sophisticated earthquake monitoring system they began installing this summer.

In June and July, teams of students and technicians traversed the farmlands and hills of southern Illinois and adjacent Missouri to find suitable spots to place instruments—quite spaces without traffic noise or swaying trees. One of the biggest challenges came in finding landowners willing to have a three-foot hole dug in their property to place an instrument, all in the name of science.

When complete, the system will include 120 stations arrayed over a 200-mile long, 60-mile wide swath that stretches from central Missouri across southern Illinois and into Kentucky.

This intensive monitoring effort, which should be fully in place by next summer, is scheduled to run for two years. It’s part of a much broader project funded by the National Science Foundation called EarthScope, which involves a less-dense array of earthquake monitoring equipment that is gradually being moved across the entire continental U.S.

At each of the monitoring stations, the researchers are installing a seismometer, an instrument that measures movement in the ground from earthquake waves—not just the ones from once-in-a-great-while earthquakes people can feel, but also the ones from very small events that occur many times a year, even in the Midwest. According to Marshak, a better understanding of these minor earthquakes might help detect small, local faults in the Earth’s crust that have been overlooked before. [Photo by Michael Hamburger. Seismologists Gary Pavlis of Indiana University (left) and Hersh Gilbert of Purdue University use irrigation tile to create a temporary seismometer vault at an Earthscope site in southern Illinois.]

The seismometers involved are also sensitive enough to record seismic waves from larger earthquakes that happen elsewhere around the world—from events in Japan or South America, for example—even though those waves lose much of their energy as they pass through the Earth. That’s exciting because measurements of vibrations that pass through the Earth’s interior can be used to create a more refined three-dimensional image of the planet than those now available. (In an unexpected twist, the first waves from a significant quake came from Virginia, not the west coast.)

Marshak likens the anticipated product of this monitoring to a CAT scan of the Earth’s crust beneath the Midwest. Just as a medical CAT scan can detect unusual features inside a human body, a seismic CAT scan can detect unusual features underground, such as regions of light or dense rock. Recognition of such features may explain why the Illinois Basin and the Ozark Plateau exist, and may even help to explain how our continent formed in the first place, over a billion years ago.