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Agriculture Impact: Nutrient Management



To investigate this question, Secretary Kee spearheaded a multi-agency committee made up of representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), US Geological Survey (USGS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and University of Delaware Cooperative Extension to plan a one-day seminar on this topic.  The seminar, “Assessing the Condition of Delaware’s Waters & Nutrient Management Efforts:  Monitoring, Modeling, & Research,” was held November 27, 2012 at the Delaware Technical and Community College campus in Dover.  (Agenda with links to available presentations.)  The goal of the seminar was to:  provide an overview of water quality monitoring and modeling efforts within Delaware and the region; review the status and trends of this data; and discuss how these efforts are and could be linked to agricultural programs and research to better inform policy decisions.  Approximately 92 people were in attendance representing numerous government agencies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and businesses.


In the morning, speakers from DNREC and the USGS provided overviews of the various routine monitoring networks and special monitoring projects that occur in Delaware.  This was followed by a summary of the Delmarva Groundwater Model that predicts changes in nutrient discharges over time.  In the afternoon, participants heard about the latest nutrient management research initiatives out of the University of Delaware.  Then, DNREC’s Deputy Secretary Dave Small, EPA’s Agriculture Liaison Kelly Shenk, and UD’s Dr. Tom Sims participated in a panel and led an audience discussion addressing the questions of, “Are we making progress and are we capturing progress through our monitoring programs?”   Finally, Jennifer Volk of UD Cooperative Extension’s nutrient management program summarized the key points and monitoring and research needs identified by the speakers and the audience.



The overall response from all of the speakers and panelists that day was, yes, we are making progress in addressing Delaware’s nutrient impairments and depending on the type of monitoring effort, we are starting to see that progress in data.  The main factor complicating interpretation of progress, especially for nitrogen, is the groundwater residence time, which is the amount of time it takes for water to move from where it falls on land as precipitation to where it discharges in streams as groundwater.  On average, discharging groundwater across Delmarva is 20-40 years old.  As a result of groundwater residence times, surface water monitoring programs will not see significant improvements in water quality as a result of better nutrient management practices on the land until older, nutrient rich groundwater, is flushed out.  The general consensus is that this has started to happen.



But, because of these transport factors, several of the speakers recommended augmenting existing monitoring networks with additional sampling of the smaller, first-order, headwater streams and groundwater flowpath analyses in order to confirm and better quantify these improvements.  During the afternoon discussion period, panelists emphasized that in these tough budgetary times, it is imperative to network with peers and collaborate on projects in order to leverage our resources to the maximum extent.  Additionally, all agreed that it is important to communicate these accomplishments to a wider audience including farmers and the general public through the media.





As a result of this seminar, survey respondents indicated that they became more aware of the extent of Delaware’s water quality monitoring networks and projects.  Based on the information presented, attendees also left the seminar feeling more positive about Delaware’s water quality trends.  And, the majority of survey respondents believed both prior to and following the seminar that Delaware’s nutrient management efforts were improving water quality.



Based on seminar evaluations, the majority of the survey respondents found the information presented to be useful to their daily work and indicated they would like to attend a conference on monitoring, modeling, and research topics either annually or every-other-year.  Topics that people expressed interest in included:  stormwater; wetlands, habitat, and biology; wastewater; emerging contaminants; climate change; pesticides and herbicides; and pathogens.  Several respondents also expressed interest in continued focus on nutrient management and nutrient use efficiency topics and said they would be interested in learning more about the effectiveness of best management practices to reduce nutrients and new technologies for precision nutrient management.  Other comments provided throughout the day and on evaluations indicated that they would like to see accomplishments communicated more often and to a wider audience.


As a result of this conference, new professional relationships have formed, especially between the USGS and UD Cooperative Extension, who now plan to work on a joint project evaluating agriculture conservation practices.  Following the recommendations to communicate observed progress to a wider audience, the messages conveyed at the conference have been shared at several other forums including Delaware Ag Week, Kent County Crop Masters, Nutrient Management Commission Meetings, and as part of the nutrient management certification courses.  Additionally, the original conference planning committee is now in the process of planning a follow up conference for the fall.

For more information about UD Cooperative Extension’s nutrient management efforts please visit the nutrient management webpages.


Submitted by Jennifer Volk, Environmental Quality Extension Specialist