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Ground water research, information, and policy needs: Strategies and priorities for extension

Charles A. Francis

Abstract. The Cooperative Extension Services in many states have concentrated on educational publications and programs which describe the complexities of the hydrologic cycle and where pollutants can enter the system. Recognizing that farming is a prime source of nonpoint source pollution in some areas, extension programs have focused on alternative agricultural practices which can reduce that pollution. Both national and state extension services have published recommendations on increasing public awareness, developed linkages with research, and provided leadership in education about pollution problems and how to solve them. The current national task forces on extension priorities include "water quality" as one of eight key areas for future extension emphasis. Alternative farming practices which can help reduce the pollution levers from agriculture include careful soil sampling, interpretation of analyzes, setting yield goals, and matching nutrient applications to crop needs. Modified methods of nutrient application can also help. Reduced tillage, crop rotations, increased use of legumes, and keeping cover on the land through a greater part of the year can all help. Reduced applications of pesticides and use of alternative pest control measures have potential to improve "round water quality. There are economic as well as environmental reasons to reduce chemical and fertilizer applications in agriculture. This is a critical time for producers and researchers to examine alternative practices which can help improve "round water quality for future generations.


If research results, extension publications, and national strategy statements and documents could solve our problem of "round water contamination, we would perhaps enjoy the cleanest water in the world. Reviewing documents and promotional materials from state extension services, one is impressed by the amount of thought and energy which has gone into developing information for the public. It would be very difficult for anyone in this country to not be aware, at least in a general sense, that we have a serious "round water problem and that solutions are badly needed if we are concerned about water quality for ourselves and for future generations.

This review of current extension priorities and activities first describes the official awareness within the extension community about the importance of water quality. There is a national task force working to determine the critical issues related to water quality and how the extension service is going to address them. At the state lever, there is a wealth of information already in use which describes the hydrologic cycle, the major sources of pollutants, and the farming practices which can be used to help alleviate these problem consequences of our current agricultural practices. Finally, there are some important issues which we need to consider in extension as we deliver this message to farmers and establish a dialogue and a strategy for solving current problems of contamination. Alternative practices are available, and many of them are being implemented by progressive and concerned farmers. This symposium extends a discussion of concerns which were brought out in the first symposium in 1984 (Institute for Alternative Agriculture, 1984; Papendick, 1984).

Current official awareness and priorities

In spite of an apparent current apathy in the administration, there is a high lever of official concern in most of the involved federal agencies. The Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP, undated) published a set of guidelines for extension: "Groundwater Education: A Challenge for the Cooperative Extension Service." This report included the following recommendations:

-- develop educational programs on nature of water resources

-- Implement educational programs on impacts of agricultural chemicals on "round water quality

-- increase local government awareness and understanding

-- educate public about conserving water resources

-- develop formal linkages with research agencies

-- implement interdisciplinary regional education programs

-- provide program leadership at national lever

-- identify shortages of expertise in extension education

Based on the number of state publications for use in extension, one could conclude that many of these recommendations are being implemented, at least on the state lever. The Chesapeake Bay program is exemplary of a regional or multi-state effort. The reference list includes a number of these state-published extension fact sheets -- the list only provides examples of what is available, and not an exhaustive search of materials.

The Office of Ground-Water Protection of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has also published numerous documents, including the "Ground-Water Protection Strategy" (Environmental Protection Agency, 1984). The strategy includes measures to strengthen programs at the state lever, to cope with problems which have not been adequately addressed to date, and to develop an integrated policy framework within which to operate. Similar strategies have been developed at the state lever (for example, State of Nebraska, 1984). These plans are broad and present an overview of the challenge, but successful implementation requires a series of specific programs and activities which can be funded and put into action in each state.

The current Extension Committee on Organization and Policy/Extension Service (ECOP/ES) National Priorities Task Force is actively working to develop a clear set of priorities and guidelines for extension over the next decade (Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, 1986). The national committee has identified eight priority areas for including in the report, and one of these is specific to water quality. The eight areas are:

-- competitiveness and profitability in American agriculture

-- alternative agricultural opportunities

-- water quality

-- conservation and management of naturel resources

-- revitalization of rural America

-- improving nutrition, diet, and health

-- enhancing family economic and social well being

-- building and developing human capital

In addition to the specific priority area in water quality, the same issues are important to other task forces including naturel resources, alternative agriculture, profitability, and revitalization of rural America.

Each of the task forces is co-chaired by one extension specialist from the ES/ USDA and one from the states -- each group is made up of 12 to 15 people from different states. There is a determined effort to get all states to participate in elaborating the issues statements, and in providing relevant information about on-going programs in each of these areas. We anticipate that the set of issues and priorities which emerge from this report will help shape extension efforts over the next decade, as well as help to generate support for the integrated federal/state activities in extension.

Publications on sources of contaminants

Sources of nonpoint source pollution are well documented in the extension materials available in most states. Citing references here does not imply that similar materials are not available elsewhere -- these references are merely examples of some of the best-known extension bulletins and fact sheets, as well as in-depth studies, which describe "round water quality problems which are related to farming.

One of the longest established concerns about "round water contamination is in the Chesapeake Bay region. The multi-state efforts there have involved state and federal agencies, and the extension service has been involved from the stars. Because of the large urban populations and multiple uses of the bay, there has been a wide concern about modified agricultural practices which can reduce the current nonpoint source pollution of the "round water and the bay (Magette, 1984; Magette and Weismiller, 1984, 1985). There is concern about topics as broad as land use policy (Pitt, 1986) and as persona! as water use and conservation in the home (Ordonez, 1985). Some of the teaching materials developed in the region could serve as models for other parts of the country (Maryland State Soil Conservation Committee, undated).

Certainly the survey work by George Hallberg and colleagues of the Iowa Geological Survey is among the most thorough and well publicized in the midwest (Hallberg, 1985a, 1985b, 1986; Hallberg et al., 1985). Working together with other local, state, and federal agencies, the Survey has compiled a convincing series of statistics which relate "round water nitrates and pesticide residues directly to nonpoint sources in agriculture. These results have been widely publicized within the state by both the Survey and the state university, and the awareness created by this critical work is now affecting planning by the state and practices used by individual farm managers. In addition to the environmental consequences of these agricultural practices, the studies relate "round water contamination to human and livestock health problems and to the economics of farming.

Concerns about nitrate levers in the "round water of the Platte River Valley in Nebraska have led to a comprehensive study of sources and alternative agricultural practices which could be used to alleviate the problem. The Hall County Water Quality Special Report outlines a number of these practices, including management of nitrogen from all possible sources, more efficient use of nitrogen, and demonstration of the effectiveness of alternatives in irrigated corn production (University of Nebraska, 1984). This information is also reaching farmers through the comprehensive programs of the Cooperative Extension Service of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University (Agronomy Department, University of Nebraska, 1987).

These are only examples of what states are doing to inform their clients in agriculture about the sources of contamination of "round water. Other examples are listed in the reference section (Jackson and Webendorfer, 1983a, 1983b; Merrill et al., 1983; Robertson and Christenson, 1985; Young and Mancl, 1985). In fact, farmers are becoming more aware of nitrates both as a problem and as a resource for irrigated agriculture. There are economic and environmental reasons for using this resource to advantage, and this may suggest useful strategies for us to improve "round water quality.

Farming strategies and practices

Recognizing the sources of nonpoint source pollution in agriculture is the first step to designing strategies to correct the problem. Next is building these strategies into a farming system. Magette and Weismiller (1985) present an excellent summary table in their Bay Fact Sheet 3, "Nutrient Management for Water Quality Protection". They describe a series of nutrient-related management decisions which are called "Best Management Practices":

-- proper nutrient application rates: match rates to crop needs, use soil tests and account for all sources of nutrients

-- appropriate timing of application: apply when crop needs nutrients, use split applications of N. avoid fall applications

-- appropriate method of application: promote efficient nutrient use, reduce erosion, band apply with tillage if possible

-- reduced tillage practices: use tillage appropriate to soil, climate, and farming system, tie up nutrients in organic matter

-- crop rotations: legumes in rotation reduce N requirements for following cereal, reduce erosion and leaching, improve structure

-- cover crops: use residual nutrients, tie up nutrients in organic master, reduce erosion and leaching

-- critical area seeding: removes highly erodible areas from crop cultivation, introduces permanent cover

- -- ponds: permanent water entrapment traps sediment and phosphorus; nitrogen runoff decreased by volatilization and denitrification

These practices have been further described in "Best Management Practices for Nutrient Uses in the Chesapeake Basin", a summary of tillage options and ways to apply and retain nutrients until they are used effectively by the plant (Cooperative Extension Service, Chesapeake Basin, 1985).

Nitrogen management is especially critical, since nitrates appear routinely in our "round waters where N application rates are high, water tables are relatively shallow, and soils are course textured. Management of N is described for Michigan farmers in a series of bulletins (Meints and Vitosh, 1986; Vitosh, 1985) which include the effects of soil type and texture, permeability of surface and subsoil, depth of soil, and location of a rechargeable aquifer. They relate most of the same recommendations listed above to specific conditions of Michigan, and add the importance of incorporating surface applications of urea or UAN and the potentials of manure as a nutrient source. Organic soils in some parts of the state present different challenges (Lucas and Warncke, 1985). Phosphorus is also critical for plant growth, but can be a pollutant -careful use of P fertilizers, manures, and industrial wastes is suggested along with conservation tillage to reduce erosion and loss of P (Robertson and Christenson, 1985). Pesticide contamination can also be a problem in Michigan, influenced by characteristics of each product, soil type, and depth of the water table (Tschirley, 1985). Guidelines for use of pesticides in the field as well as important safety factors are described which producers should follow.

In addition to careful choice of nutrient sources, methods of application, and conservative use of pesticides, farmers today are extremely concerned about cutting production costs. One of the most comprehensive documents available today on how to reduce inputs and variable production costs is the book Sustainable Agriculture...wise and profitable use of our resources in Nebraska (Agronomy Department, Univ. of Nebraska, 1987). This compendium of extension materials includes fact sheets, newsletter issues, and workshop presentations in the areas of crop production, soil management, and crop protection. The second subtitle is attractive to farmers in our state, "Practical and profitable ideas for use on your farm!" The emphasis throughout is on today's management systems and how to make them more efficient and profitable.

In the crop production section, articles deal with setting yield goals, choosing appropriate crops and varieties/ hybrids for each situation, and alternative cropping systems, such as strip cropping or relay cropping. Use of rotations, forages and small grains, and alternate crops are suggested as options to the producer who wants to diversify a cash grain farm. Soils topics include field sampling and laboratory testing, and especially the interpretation of soil test results. We know that proper sampling of the root zone, appropriate yield goals, and accounting for all sources of nutrients can reduce the fertilizer package by about one-half without reducing yields. Experience in the Hall County project in Nebraska showed that farmers over-estimated yield goals by about 35 bu/acre, resulting in excessive N applications and subsequent leaching into the "round water. Corn planted in one-third of the irrigated and two-thirds of the dryland fields in this study did not respond to any applied nutrients in the first year!

The final section of the book includes methods of low-cost weed control, rotations, and decision making on when and when not to spray for insects. Pesticide training and certification in Nebraska, as in the rest of the states, is helping producers to better understand the dangers of pesticides to themselves and to the rest of the system. Other extension publications from Nebraska emphasize the importance of residue management (Dickey et al., 1981), and runoff on water quality (Dickey et al., 1982). Water testing and criteria for evaluation are also described in these extension bulletins (Hergert, 1977; Knudsen, 1984).

These are examples from the Chesapeake Bay region, from Michigan, and from Nebraska. They exemplify what is happening in production agriculture, and the role which the research and extension activities of the land grant universities are playing in helping farmers to solve problems with contamination. It is important to have the best possible information about alternative approaches to fertility and to pest control, and to understand their application in a wide range of conditions. Economics also plays a critical role in each farmer's decision. And the promotion of improved practices to clean up our "round water depends in part on the programs we design to encourage this change.

Extension education programs

Educational programs are being planned and implemented by the Cooperative Extension Services as well as the Natural Resource Districts in each state (Bishop, 1986). There is a growing body of information available to help plan these programs. Swader et al. (1985) described the formation and activities of the initial ECOP task force to identify opportunities for expanding programs in "round water education. Primary limitations to the acceleration of programs in this area were identified as lack of trained people, equipment and budget. The federal extension office provided a series of guidelines on how to develop a state plan of work for water quality education (Extension Service, USDA, 1986). State plans have been developed as well, for example, in Wisconsin (Cooperative Extension Service,

University of Wisconsin, 1986) and in Michigan (Cooperative Extension Service, Michigan State University, 1986). These two documents are primarily resource lists which can acquaint extension specialists, county agents and other educators with the wealth of materials available on "round water quality.

Other more popular materials have been developed for broader circulation. Wisconsin has published a supplement issue to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine (Taylor, undated). Titled Groundwater -- Wisconsin 's Buried Treasure, the issue describes agricultural, industrial, and other uses of water for a wide audience in the state. Their Groundwater Study Guide (Yonkers, 1984) starts its general description with a definition of the Chippewa word "Wees-kan-san", which means a "gathering of the waters" and which gave the state its name. The "Baybook", already described, brings a general message about the importance of this resource to a broad audience (Maryland State Soil Conservation Committee, undated). These materials are examples of what is available in different regions of the country -- it would appear that we are not lacking in research, extension, or educational materials! Is this message reaching agriculture, and how are today's producers reacting to the challenge?

Conclusions -- how producers react to our programs

In extension meetings in the midwest, farmers are receptive to our presentations which discuss reduced inputs. There is an economic incentive today which might not have been as acute five years ego. Ways to cut production costs, especially the fertilizer and the pesticide package, are popular topics -- producers are mainly concerned about what this will do to yields, and how they can make informed decisions about how much and when to apply. The move from purchased "external" production inputs to more efficient use of "internal" resources on the farm is appealing to those who are concerned about reducing cash costs and making a system more sustainable. Emphasis on crop rotations, more cultivation and/or banding herbicides, reduced or ridge tillage, and even intensive systems such as relay or double cropping are more than just future possibilities. We have producers using these methods today.

In addition to the economic incentive, there is an issue of government control. With the rules for meeting federal guidelines, there will be an accelerated concern about reducing erosion losses from hillside lands in the program. Current laws about pesticide use, agricultural burning, chemigation, and limits on numbers of wells are sometimes perceived by farmers as an intrusion of government into their businesses. Most admit that rules are necessary, but trope that we will not be "regulated out of agriculture". An approach we have been taking in extension meetings is to encourage farmers to "take charge of our industry and our future" by solving these problems ourselves. By doing well focused research and implementing fertility and pest protection practices which reduce the pesticide/nutrient load on the environment, we can minimize problems of "round water contamination and other negative off-farm effects of agriculture. Many of the production practices described above can help move agriculture in this direction.

There is criticism by some observers outside agriculture, who say that farmers are not concerned about "round water quality, pesticide drift or residues, or other types of environmental contamination. Nothing could be more distant from the truth. Although many producers are caught today in a squeeze between high costs of production and low prices for their products, and it is sometimes difficult to do everything that should be clone for the long-term stewardship of the soil resource, there is still a serious concern about quality of the environment and quality of life. Farmers are on the front fine when it comes to contamination of a well, clothing and skin exposed to pesticides, or drift of a chemical onto the family garden. Farm families are the first to suffer from this contamination and from ingestion of chemicals. There is a concern about reducing applications and rates to the minimum necessary for sustainable crop production. Many farmers are minimizing or eliminating chemical applications altogether. There is more information available now to help in this process.

We have a good stars on improving the "round water situation, but a continuous and well-supported effort at both the state and federal lever is needed to help this succeed. Extension will play a vital role in providing relevant information on "round water quality.



1. Agronomy Department, University of Nebraska. 1987. Sustainable agriculture...wise and profitable use of our resources in Nebraska. Coop. Ext. Serv., University of Nebraska, Lincoln. 221 pp.

2. Bishop, R. 1986. The groundwater challenge. The Aquifer, Nebraska Groundwater Foundation (P.O. Box 2558, Lincoln, NE 68502), Vol. 2(1):2-3.

3. Cooperative Extension Service, Chesapeake Basin. 1985. Best management practices for nutrient uses in the Chesapeake Basin. Univ. Maryland, Bull. 308, 8 PP

4. Cooperative Extension Service, Michigan State University. 1986. Public information and education program to reduce nonpoint source pollution in Michigan. Nonpoint Source Water Quality Committee, Coop. Ext. Serv., Michigan State Univ. 27 pp.

5. Cooperative Extension Service, University of Wisconsin. 1986. How to develop extension education on groundwater: a guide to agent programming. Soil and Water Mgt. Programs, Univ. Wisconsin. 13 pp.

6. Dickey, E., P. Harlan, and D. Vokal. 1981. Crop residue management for water erosion control. Coop. Extension Service, Univ. Nebraska, NebGuide G81554. 4 pp.

7. Dickey, E., P. Harlan, D. Vokal, and C. J. Kisling Crouch. 1982. Effects of agricultural runoff on Nebraska water quality. Coop. Ext. Serv., Univ. Nebraska, NebGuide G82-586. 4 pp.

8. Environmental Protection Agency. 1984. Ground water protection strategy. Office of Ground-Water Protection, U. S. E. P. A. 56 pp. plus attachments.

9. Extension Committee on Organization and Policy. (undated). Groundwater education: a challenge for the Cooperative Extension System. Univ. Arizona, Tucson. 15 pp.

10. Extension Committee on Organization and Policy. 1986. Report on the ECOP/ES national priorities policy task force (revised). Unpublished. II. Extension Service, USDA. 1986. Developing a state plan of work for water quality education. Water Programs Steering Committee, EC/USDA. 22 pp.

12. Hallberg, G. R. 1985a. Agricultural chemical, and groundwater quality in Iowa: Status report 1985. Coop. Ext. Serv., Iowa State Univ., Ames, CE-21 58q. 11 pp.

13. Hallberg, G. R. 1985b. Groundwater quality and agricultural chemicals: a perspective from Iowa. Proc. North Central Weed Control Conf, 40:130-147.

14. Hallberg, G. R. 1986. Nitrates in groundwater in Iowa. Proc. Nitrogen and Groundwater Conf, lowa Fertilizer and Chemical Assoc., Ames, Iowa. 36 pp.

15. Hallberg G. R., R. D. Libra, and B. E. Hayes. 1985. Nonpoint source contamination of ground water in Karst-Carbonate aquifers in Iowa. Proc. Perspectives on Nonpoint Source Pollution Conf, Kansas City, Missouri. Publ. by U.S. Environ. Prot. Agency, EPA 440/5-8-001. pp. 109-114.

16. Hergert, G. W. 1977. Irrigation water quality criteria. Coop. Ext. Serv., Univ. of Nebraska, NebGuide G77 328.4 pp

17. Institute for Alternative Agriculture. 1984. Alternative Agriculture: An Introduction and Overview. Proc. First Annual Scientific Symposium, Washing- 29. ton, DC. 49 pp.

18. Jackson, G., and B. Webendorfer (eds.). 1983a. Nitrate, groundwater, and livestock health. Crop Ex tension Programs, Univ. of Wisconsin, 63217. 4 pp.

19. Jackson, G., and B. Webendorfer (eds.). 1983b. Pesticides in groundwater: how they get there, what happens to them, how to keep them out. Coop. Ext. Programs, Univ. Wisconsin, G3213. 6 pp.

20. Knudsen, D. 1984. Testing irrigation water. Coop. Ext. Serv., Univ. Nebraska, NebGuide G84-719. 2 PP

21. Lucas, R., and D. Warncke. 1985. Managing organic soils to reduce nonpoint pollution. Coop. Ext. Serv., Michigan State Univ., Ext. Bull. WQ03. 4 pp.

22. Magette, W. L. 1984. Agricultural nonpoint source pollution, Maryland Dept. Agr., Bay Fact Sheet 2. 3 PP

23. Magette, W. L., and R. A. Weismiller. 1984. Agriculture and the bay. Maryland Dept. Agr. Bay Fact Sheet. 4 pp.

24. Magette, W. L., and R. A. Weismiller, 1985. Nutrient management for water quality protection. Maryland Dept. Agr. Bay Fact Sheet 3.4 pp.

25. Maryland State Soil Conservation Committee. Undated. Baybook: a guide to reducing water pollution at home. Citizens Program for Chesapeake Bay (6600 York Rd., Baltimore, MD 21212). 32 pp.

26. Meints, V. W., and M. L. Vitosh. 1986. Nitrogen fertilizer management for efficient crop production and water quality preservation. Coop. Ext. Serv., Michigan State Univ., Ext. Bull. WQ07. 4 pp.

27. Merrill, R. E., E. F. Bullock, and E. H. Smith. 1983. Farming and water quality: a handbook for the San Joaquin River Basin. U.S. Environ. Protection Agency, Region IX, California. 48 pp.

28. Ordonez, M. T. 1985. Water conservation in the home. Coop. Ext. Serv., Univ. Maryland. Ground Water 2.4 pp.

29. Papendick, R. 1. 1984. Alternative agriculture systems: benefits to soil and water resources. Proc. Alternative Agriculture: An Introduction and Overview. First Ann. Scientific Symposium, Inst. Alt. Agr., Washington, DC. pp. 1-6.

30. Pitt, D. G. 1986 Land use policy: a key to "round water management. Coop. Ext. Serv., Univ. Maryland, Ground Water 6. 3 pp.

31. Robertson, L. S., and D. R. Christenson. 1985. Phosphorus: pollutant and essential plant food element. Coop. Ext. Serv., Michigan State Univ., Ext. Bull WQ05. 3 pp.

32. State of Nebraska. 1984. A forum: State water quality ~ regulation. Unpublished. 43 pp.

33. Swader, F., J. M. Sweeten, and M. E. Konyha. 1985. Extension education: opportunities in groundwater. Proc. Amer. Soc. Agr. Engineers, Winter Meeting, Chicago, Illinois. 10 pp.

34. Taylor, J. W. (ed.). Undated. Groundwater -- Wisconsin's buried treasure. Supplement to Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine. Geol. and Natural History Survey, Univ. Wisconsin. 31 pp.

35. Tschirley, F. 1985. Managing pesticides to avoid surface and groundwater contamination. Coop. Ext. Serv., Michigan State Univ., Ext. Bull WQ04. 2 pp.

36. University of Nebraska. 1984. Nitrogen and irrigation management: Hall County water quality special report. Coop. Ext. Serv., Inst. Agr. Nat. Res., Univ. Neb. 22 pp. plus appendices.

37. Vitosh, M. L. 1985. Nitrogen management strategies for corn producers. Coop. Ext. Serv., Michigan State Univ., Ext. Bull. WQ06. 5 pp.

38. Yonkers, D. H. 1984. Groundwater study guide. Wisconsin Dept. Natural Resources, Publ. 19-8500. 12 PP

39. Young, K., and K. Mancl. 1985. Nitrate: its effect on families and livestock. Ext. Serv. Penn. State Univ., Special Circular 308.7 pp.



Citation : Francis Charles A., 1987, "Ground water research, information, and policy needs : Strategies and priorities for extension", Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 32-36

Copyright 1987 Reprinted with permission.

Reprinted with permission.

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