February 20th, 2014
By Jerett Rion
COLUMBIA, Mo. – Nearly 40 percent of the world’s corn and soybeans are produced on farms in the Mississippi River Basin. As a result, chemicals from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer run into the river each year. Now, University of Missouri researchers are joining a national, nine-year research effort analyzing chemical runoff from a dozen farms in Missouri to determine the long term effects of these chemicals on the environment and find solutions to solve the problem.
“Our goal is to determine what kinds of materials are going into the state’s streams and into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ranjith Udawatta, an associate professor of agroforestry in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “After we collect our data, we can work with farmers to create better ways to mitigate runoff, sediment and nutrient losses.”
Phosphorus and nitrogen used in Midwestern agriculture drain into rivers and create a hypoxic zone, or Dead Zone, in Gulf of Mexico waters. These nutrients create huge algae blooms that later die and sink to the seabed, consuming oxygen as they decompose. The low oxygen levels that result from this choke out fish and other aquatic life. Warm surface-water temperatures in the summer can create large and deadly hypoxic zones.
Udawatta and his research team will use 40-foot wooden berms that channel the chemical runoff into metal collection tunnels where a meter will measure the flow rate and volume of runoff water. After a rainstorm, the researchers will take water samples from the collection tunnels and analyze them for sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus concentration to determine what nutrients are running off each test field.
“For the first three years, we will collect baseline data to determine the type and volume of runoff pollutants,” Udawatta said. “Then we will work with farmers participating in the research to try different mitigation strategies. Solutions could include planting grasses and trees or terracing the land. After we have our data collected, it will be compared to the other researchers participating in the national project.”
Udawatta also believes that the project will benefit farmers as well.
“Identifying the best mitigation strategies will benefit farmers who want to keep valuable topsoil and nutrients on the farm,” Udawatta said. “By slowing or reducing runoff, farmers will be able to employ nutrients and fertilizers more efficiently. This also will create greater crop yields and save money in the process.”
Udawatta also said that it is important that runoff collection is tested in different geographic areas because no mitigation solution will be universal.
The national project is part of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed initiative funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conversation Service.