Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1991

KU EDITION

August 17, 1991

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First comes a shocking report: Herbicide X Found in Drinking Water, Public Health at Risk.

That's followed by action demanded by a nervous public: Government Issues Ban on Herbicide X.

Then the aftershock: Crop Production Threatened by Loss of Widely Used Herbicide.

This is a fictitious example, but it could happen with some real agricultural herbicides, said Edward Martinko, director of the Kansas Biological Survey, a state agency headquartered at Kansas University.

"We have to be very careful in approaching these kinds of things," he said. "Obviously, the major component of the Kansas economy is agriculture."

"As a society, we are too reactionary. Before we act, we must do studies to understand the cause and effect," he said.

WITH A $1.25 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, researchers at KU, the University of Nebraska and Iowa State University will be studying cause and effect.

Researchers at the three universities began a study this summer to define the relationship of land topography, land-use practices and water quality.

The objective, Martinko said, is to provide effective ways to reduce water pollution with the least disruption to the activities that may cause pollution, including farming.

The plan is to examine influences on the physical, chemical and biological integrity of streams draining watersheds in areas of Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska dominated by agriculture.

The Kansas Biological Survey is coordinating the project. Participants expect to receive $3.75 million in federal funding over three years.

"We hope to find a number of things that will help us understand how substances build up in streams and some simple, inexpensive things that can be done to help prevent the buildup," Martinko said.

Fifteen watersheds defined as a land area from which water drains toward a common watercourse in a natural basin will be studied. Each is about 30 square miles.

WATERSHEDS selected for the study are in the western cornbelt region, a rich agricultural area that includes most of Iowa, southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas.

Watersheds will be searched for evidence of nonpoint-source pollution. It's a type of pollution that's difficult to identify, because such runoff comes from diffuse points.

Nonpoint-source pollution is caused by sediments, pesticides, nutrients and plant and animal wastes that enter the water supply. Other contributors are runoff from construction and mining.

An example of point-source pollution is waste from an industrial plant.

Researchers will examine statistics about fish or plant growth in one area of a watershed and compare those with findings in another geographic point in the watershed. Information from watersheds will be combined to form a picture of the western cornbelt region.

MARTINKO said results of the study should provide the foundation for the development of better land management practices for farms and agribusinesses and, perhaps, prevent overly restrictive or generalized governmental regulation.

"We want to help farmers and the government with information about the kinds of impacts they're having," said Paul Liechti, assistant director of the biological survey.

He said researchers will combine extensive field data with aerial and satellite photography. The information will be integrated by computer to relate the findings.

"There are so many factors land use, land cover, habitat, buffer zones. They will be put into a hopper and shaken up," Martinko said.

Liechti said it will take at least two years to collect enough field data to generate solid data.

MARTINKO SAID it's difficult to predict what researchers will discover.

The Kansas Geological Survey conducted a pilot study three years ago. It examined eight watersheds in northeast Kansas with different levels of agricultural development.

"One of the most important things that did come out of that study was that landscape, as well as land use, influences nonpoint-source pollution," he said.

Martinko said the pilot study was conducted in a period of drought and indicated non-point-source pollution was an issue even in times of prolonged dry weather.

"It also showed that to draw some conclusions that influence management decisions we had to do a longer, more comprehensive study and make sure the findings were applicable to other seasons and other areas of the region," he said.

Martinko said it shouldn't come as a surprise that questions about non-point-source pollution haven't been answered.

"IF YOU go out looking for problems that cost a tremendous amount of money to remediate, sometimes people don't really want to know the answer," he said.

Liechti said another reason some riddles remain unanswered is that examining an ecosystem, such as the western cornbelt region, is complicated.

"In the past, there haven't been sophisticated software tools, computers, to analyze this information . . . and look at the whole landscape at once," he said.

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