Working to preserve healthy water ecosystems

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MSU researchers work to preserve healthy water ecosystems.

Michigan, in many ways, is defined by water. The state boasts 11,037 inland lakes and tens of thousands of miles of rivers and streams, providing at least one body of water every 6 miles.

Then there are the great lakes, which literally shape the state. In addition to sustaining the state’s lush natural ecosystems and residential communities, water is a critical source of irrigation for the more than 52,000 farms that call Michigan home.

It also plays a central role in the state’s $18 billion outdoor recreation industry. Fortunately, researchers with the Institute of Water Research (IWR) at Michigan State University (MSU) have devoted over a half century to protecting and ensuring the responsible use of Michigan waterways.

 In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Water Resources Research Act, which authorized the establishment of an IWR in each state.

It was mandated that the institutes solve problems and advance scientific knowledge about water resources across the country, as well as recruit and train more scientists in those areas.

Because of its land-grant mission, MSU was the natural home for Michigan’s IWR, an effort supported by MSU AgBioResearch, MSU Extension and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

When he joined the MSU Department of Community Sustainability (then the Department of Resource Development) in 1978, Jon Bartholic brought the skills in satellite imagery and water resource use he had gained while at the University of Florida.

Initially tasked with setting up the center for remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS), Bartholic was quickly named acting director of the IWR when the previous director left in 1981.

Five years later, he became the director, and he has since guided the institute’s efforts to ensure that Michigan’s water resources remain both safe and useful.

“You need both healthy land and water resources for high-quality, sustainable food production,” said Bartholic, professor in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability. “If we don’t sustain them, we won’t be able to optimize our capabilities to enhance the environment and the economy.”

One of the key steps under Bartholic’s leadership was to establish an advisory group to examine water resource issues with funding from the Great Lakes Protection Fund. The advisers allow the institute’s work to be guided by a holistic understanding of the entire state.

Bartholic’s early work with the remote sensing and GIS center led directly into what would become a new focus for the IWR. IWR scientists took statewide water quality data from digital databases and, using GIS software, overlaid it onto maps of the state.

By laying the data out visually, the team was able to see water quality in the state change over time, particularly with respect to nitrate levels. Nitrates – naturally occurring organic compounds found in air, water and soil – are made up primarily of nitrogen and oxygen.

Though nitrates are harmless at natural levels, high nitrate concentrations in water present health risks, particularly for infants and pregnant women.

“We noticed nitrates, which aren’t supposed to exceed 10 parts per million in a water sample, had been growing over time, especially in rural areas where people rely on wells for their water,” Bartholic said. “Finding that pretty much set the stage for the next chapter.”

An information technology approach

Elevated nitrate levels in well water often result from complications from the location and construction of wells, in addition to the presence of chemical fertilizers, septic systems, animal feedlots and industrial runoff, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Approximately 39 percent of Michigan’s consumptive water – water that is not returned immediately to the environment – is used for agricultural irrigation, according to a 2015 Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) report.

Previously, ensuring that the wells capable of delivering such significant water quantities leave a minimal impact on the environment was a costly, time-consuming process that required extensive inspection and permitting.

To help water users, like farmers, place wells in locations that would limit risk factors and better preserve their water resources, IWR scientists, working in concert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the DEQ and the USGS, developed the Water Assessment Tool.

A web-based system, the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool allows farmers to input data on their land and proposed well, such as distance to nearby streams, the depth of the soil to bedrock and the amount of water they aim to withdraw.

The program runs that data through a statistical model that estimates the impact of the well on the watershed, such as the amount of water it will withdraw or the risks to nearby rivers and streams, and on the basis of that calculation either begins the registration process or helps the user begin a more in-depth inspection process.

Jeremiah Asher, assistant director of the IWR, served as the lead technical developer of the tool.

“Putting down irrigation wells is a major investment, and this tool helps reduce the amount of permitting required for them,” said Asher, who also serves as IWR director of information and decision-support technologies. “It provides a quick screening mechanism that allows wells with minimum impact to go through quickly while beginning the inspection process for more challenging cases. It’s a way to be less onerous on water users while still managing our resources responsibly.”

The final version of the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool went into use in 2009, and since then, it has served approximately 4,500 applicants. It remains unique in the Great Lakes region, and it allows farmers to apply for irrigation wells in minutes rather than over the course of days.

The Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool’s application of information technology, such as the GIS-derived landscape data upon which its statistical modeling is built, represents a significant part of Bartholic’s guiding vision for the IWR.

“We’re in the information age now, and that allows us to find ways to better, more efficiently manage our resources,” Bartholic said. “These tools are powerful and can look at many different aspects of the landscape at once, and that lets us better manage water for food production into the future while maintaining the high-quality environment that’s so important to us in Michigan.”

Serving communities

Ensuring the long-term sustainability of Michigan’s water resources goes beyond the computer screen, however. For water conservation practices to be effective, they have to go beyond merely reducing pollution and preventing the overuse of water resources – they have to be practical for farmers.

Few people have as detailed a knowledge of the landscape as the people who live on and actively work it, and cooperating with these local experts has become a crucial element of the IWR’s work.

Stephen Gasteyer, associate professor in the MSU Department of Sociology, worked closely with Bartholic and the IWR research team to understand how farmers view water conservation practices and help them make data-driven decisions.

“If you look at a map of pollution in a watershed map, you’ll see pollution isn’t evenly distributed,” Gasteyer said. “Chemical runoff tends to be concentrated in very specific areas, and my efforts focus on identifying why these problem areas occur and ways we can help farmers reduce them.”

Though several government agencies and research groups were looking at various parts of this issue, Bartholic said none of them were approaching it holistically. With assistance from Gasteyer, Bartholic worked to change that.

After a year of discussions with Michigan farmers about water conservation, the IWR identified three issues:

  • The majority of farmers are willing to make improvements to their landscape, including using best practices to reduce water withdrawal and chemical runoffs. Implementation, however, must make financial sense.
  • A variety of best practices for water conservation are needed because the practice that works on one farm may not work on another mere miles away.
  • More knowledge is needed on why a minority of farmers do not implement water conservation practices and ways to encourage them to do so.

In pursuit of these issues, Gasteyer and his team of graduate student researchers took to the field, visiting individual farms and holding community meetings to learn more about what practices were working.

They wanted to know why some farmers were interested in water conservation and why others were not. Their work focused on the River Raisin watershed in southeastern Michigan near the Ohio border, where the team had established contacts among both the agricultural and conservation communities.

“It’s all about communicating with farmers, one way or another,” Gasteyer said. “It’s about finding ways to build trust and understand one another, then finding ways you can both achieve your goals together.”

The team began their interviews in 2015 and will continue the project until 2018. Already, several trends have begun to emerge.

“It’s increasingly clear that farmers want to work with researchers to better their land, rather than have us or government agencies hand down edicts without a full understanding of their landscape,” Gasteyer said. “Most of them are really receptive and want to have an operation that’s as efficient and conservative as possible.”

Into the future

This past spring, Bartholic retired after nearly 40 years at MSU. His work dramatically expanded the impact of the IWR on Michigan’s agricultural community, helping it continue to flourish while having new cutting-edge technology to better manage agricultural operations.

“Jon did a really amazing job looking at the big picture and challenging people to think differently about how we manage water,” Asher said. “He was always interested in technologies that could help people with agricultural production, with improving water quality, with bettering environmental health. He was also, as somebody to work with, a flexible and understanding person who helped you grow as a scientist.”

Darrell Donahue, professor and chairperson of the MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, has now taken over as IWR director.

Donahue hopes to continue to expand the scope of the IWR’s work, using the technologies pioneered by Bartholic’s team to help even more people throughout the state.

“For the past 20 years, Jon’s team has done a fantastic job addressing water quality and runoff issues in agriculture,” Donahue said. “They developed great tools to help farmers and communities in both large and small watersheds, and they did it by talking with those communities and addressing their concerns directly. Now we have an opportunity to build that framework out.”

Donahue’s vision for the IWR is to expand its capabilities to address new water challenges in the state, such as the Flint water crisis and the water infrastructure issues that event brought to the forefront.

Much of the water delivery infrastructure in Michigan and across the United States is between 50 and 100 years old, and the risk of new issues similar to those found in Flint continues to grow. The IWR’s commitment to agriculture will remain unchanged, however.

“We already have the tools to help farmers improve their operations, and anything we can do to help them, we will,” Donahue said. “If we can help them deliver food in a more sustainable way, we’ll be helping fulfill the university’s land-grant mission.”

From Bartholic’s perspective, the work of the IWR has never been more important.

“As we see the world population going from seven billion to nine billion, we’re going to be putting more stress on our resources, especially water,” Bartholic said. “It’s critical that the institute and those like it around the country continue to bridge the gap between fundamental research and decision-making systems in order to provide practical solutions that help everyone.”