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Diverse Coalition Investigating Water Quality in the Northwest

By David Elstein
March 14, 2002

Some farming activities require the selected use of fertilizers and other chemicals that may enter nearby streams. Do these move from where they were applied? How much actually gets into the water? Are wildlife affected? In many cases, no one really knows for sure.

Agricultural Research Service scientists at the Forage Seed and Cereal Research Center, Corvallis, Ore., are partners in a federation investigating whether certain farming practices affect water quality in western Oregon, northern California and eastern Washington. Once the study is complete, if the researchers find farming practices affect water quality, they will advise farmers of ways to protect water resources.

ARS has found that perennial ryegrass, like grass buffer strips, can effectively take up applied nitrogen fertilizers so there is little impact on water quality in nearby streams. Research is now under way to see how grass seed fields interact with riparian zones and influence the habitat of salmon and steelhead trout that are protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act. The researchers are also studying how conservation practices used on rangeland and irrigated farms near Sacramento, Calif., and on Kentucky bluegrass grass seed farms near Spokane, Wash., affect water quality.

Since the research involves projects in three states and various farm and environmental issues are being considered, many groups are helping ARS, including USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Audubon Society, Oregon State University’s (OSU) Fisheries and Wildlife Department, the Yolo County (Calif.) Resources Conservation District, and local farmers. The researchers are also working with OSU’s Department of Computer Science to design web pages and decision-making tools to help farmers use the findings. This is a unique partnership that combines federal and local government agencies, different departments of a university, private organizations and the farming community.

The ARS lab comprises a diverse group of scientists including agronomist Jeffrey Steiner, plant physiologist Stephen Griffith and hydrologist Gerald Whittaker.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

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