Water Quality and the Role of AgriculturePosted on May 9, 2023
Kentucky’s ag sector has a head start on many other states when it comes to caring for their waterways.
Improving water quality has been a long-term goal of the state’s agricultural sector well in advance of the many climate issues currently making headlines.
The Kentucky General Assembly passed the Kentucky Agriculture Water Quality Act in 1994 to protect surface and groundwater resources from pollution as a result of agriculture and silviculture (forestry) activities, according to information from the Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet.
The Act requires landowners with 10 or more acres that are being used for agriculture or silviculture operations to develop and implement a water quality plan.
This legislation also created the Agriculture Water Quality Authority (AWQA) whose members are appointed by the governor to represent the state’s agriculture and environmental community.
Kentucky Farm Bureau (KFB) state director Larry Thomas chairs the AWQA and serves as the KFB representative on the Authority. He said Kentucky has led the way with this type of proactive step to help farm owners play a major role in water quality management.
“Kentucky is the only state that I'm aware of that has taken this route,” he said. I think this is a model program and it has surprised me that other states haven't followed it, but it's working for us. The waters in Kentucky are getting better, and while that's not to say we can't improve, we can continue to work and improve.”
Thomas added that there is a committee structure, as part of AWQA, that looks at the best management practices and makes sure they're still relevant to what's going on with agriculture.
“Anytime we see something, such as a new practice that someone is using that seems to be working, we can add those as a best management practice,” he said. “And, as farmers fill out their plan, they can choose what best management practices they want to use on their farm to help protect the water. So, I see the AWQA as being relevant for quite a while into the future.”
KFB President Mark Haney said farm families have long been good stewards of their natural resources because they depend on them to be successful.
“Agriculture, in general, is and should be a part of the solution to the many climate issues we are faced with today,” he said. “But we often hear more about what our industry has done to contribute to the earth’s carbon footprint, than what we are doing to help the environment, as a whole. One certain thing is, our farm families understand that taking care of the natural resources around them helps in their efforts to remain on the farm.”
Angie Crain, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), serves as the water quality specialist in the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Water Science Center. She said through a system of water quality measuring devices known as “super gauges,” a better understanding can be realized of just what chemicals are heading out of Kentucky waterways into the Ohio River, ultimately making it to the Mississippi River basin.
“In terms of the Kentucky network of super gauges, there currently are two on the Ohio River; one at Ironton, Ohio, and one at Olmsted, IL (a USGS National Water Quality Network site),” she said. “These two super gauges serve to bracket major contributors of nutrients and sediment entering and leaving Kentucky on the Ohio River. There also are super gauges on four of Kentucky’s largest rivers which include the Licking River, the Kentucky River, the Green River, and the Salt River.”
Crain added that technically speaking, a super gage provides real-time, continuous streamflow or groundwater levels and water-quality measurements with a representative (discrete) water sample being collected for laboratory analysis to ensure the accuracy of the real-time data.
“A super gage is ‘super’ because it incorporates advanced technology beyond the capabilities of standard instruments and can provide a more complete picture and a better understanding of the water-quality conditions in the river,” she said. “The richer data sets improve our understanding of relations between water quality and changes in hydrology and enable USGS scientists to develop better management tools. In turn, these tools allow USGS partners to make evidence-based decisions for improved protection of the water quality of our nation’s rivers and groundwater.”
What these super gauges are finding is a reduction in nutrients often associated with agriculture production. Crain said that from 2011 – 2021, trends in total phosphorus and nitrate loads leaving the Ohio River basin and entering the Mississippi River have decreased by 10 percent and eight percent, respectively.
“During that same period, decreasing trends in concentrations of total phosphorus (13 percent) and nitrate (nine percent) were also observed,” she said. “These observed trends are attributed to changes in the watershed from sources, management practices, and how nutrients are transported through soil or the atmosphere (nitrogen only) and not influenced by changes in streamflow.”
Crain emphasized that it is always welcome news to see an overall decreasing trend in nutrient loads from the Ohio River basin which is vital to help reduce the size of the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico. She added the five-year average size of the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico is declining, too.
Certainly, all the decreases can’t be attributed to the agriculture industry, but the sector has played a significant role when it comes to the many practices that farm families have been utilizing for years to lessen their effect on the environment.
“Kentucky was one of the leaders in no-till farming and conserving the topsoil, and we're now one of the leaders, I believe, in cover crops,” Thomas said. “It's our hope we’re making sure Kentucky farmers get the credit for practices that they've already been doing.”
J.W. Goodwin, a corn, soybean, and wheat producer from McCracken County, has been utilizing best management practices on his farm for decades.
“I’m a third-generation farmer and my son and grandsons are the fourth and fifth generations on this farm,” he said. “We plant about 4,500 acres some of which is on the river bottoms of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers.”
Goodwin said raising a crop in these bottom areas is a challenge when water comes in and debris has to be cleared but when all things are right, it is good ground for crops.
“We’ve been planting in the bottoms since about 1986 and I think all but two years we have water in the fields so we try to do all we can to prevent erosion like leaving the stalks in the field trying to keep all the organic matter we can,” he said. “And we try to watch what chemicals we put on these fields while making sure we can produce a crop.”
Goodwin has been utilizing good conservation practices for decades including no-till production on many of his acres since the 1970s.
“We have done the no-till or very minimal-till, along with putting in more waterways, and in the fall, we try to drill wheat in some of our valleys that don’t have the waterways,” he said. “We’ve learned that helps a lot.”
Goodwin is passing along his knowledge of conservation practices to his son and grandson as they continue to do more and more on the farm.
“I’m still in the process of teaching them, but I'm almost 70 years old, I'm going have to slow down before long,” he said. “They're following right behind me, doing the same practices.”
Goodwin said it only makes sense to manage the resources on the farm responsibly.
“We don't want to see our soil washed away or doing anything to pollute the waterways,” he said. “We drink that same water, too and we want it just as pure as we can get it so, we try to do the best job we can.”