Page Banner

United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

History of the PSWMRU
headline bar

Establishment of the PSWMRU

Photograph of the Pasture Laboratory todayThe Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Laboratory (PSWMRL) was established on April 2, 1992, by merging the Northeast Watershed Research Center (NWRC) and the U.S. Regional Pasture Research Laboratory (USRPRL), both located on the campus of the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.

Since the merger, several important actions and changes have resulted. The first had to do with the Laboratory's physical consolidation accomplished in December, 1994. Based on agreements reached with the Agronomy Department and the College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State University, we moved most of our laboratories from the Pasture Lab Building to the neighboring Agricultural Science and Industries Building. Following this, we converted most of the vacated laboratories to office space and moved all personnel to the Pasture Lab Building, including the old NWRC group located about 1.5 km away in space rented from the Penn State University. Second, our leadership, office, and administrative functions were consolidated, reorganized, and refocused.

The USRPRL was the second of nine regional laboratories established under Title I, Section IV of the Bankhead-Jones Act approved by the U.S. Congress in 1935. The Laboratory was conceived to serve as a focal point for basic research in pasture improvement and to encourage cooperative research in solving pasture problems in the northeastern U.S. The initial Memorandum of Understanding between the USDA and each state Agricultural Experiment Station directed all parties to obtain, through basic research, the technology and materials useful to improve pasture throughout the Northeast, and to facilitate the utilization of these facts and materials for the benefit of northeastern agriculture. It also stressed that research in pasture improvement be conducted by the various State Agricultural Experiment Stations and be integrated with the research of the USRPRL. A second Memorandum of Understanding, issued 21 years later, reaffirmed the first, and focused on the importance of grasslands in the Northeast with the need to cooperate and coordinate efforts to cover the broad field of plant, soil, and animal relationships for improving grasslands.

Pasture Research Program

Photo of the Pasture Laboratory when it opened in 1937.One of the primary purposes for establishing the USRPRL was to serve as the focal point for forage research in the 12 northeastern states. In order to stimulate cooperative research, a Board of Collaborators was created, with one representative each from the 12 states. These collaborators were selected so that different fields of research were represented in the planning, coordination, and integration of fundamental research. They reviewed research projects and exchanged information. The collaborators first met in 1937 and continued on an annual or biennial basis until discontinued in 1973.

The original mission of USRPRL was to investigate fundamental problems related to improving the productivity of grasslands in the northeastern U.S. Over the years this mission was expanded to include investigations of biological, chemical, and environmental problems which are involved in the production and utilization of forage crops and cereals. Basic and applied investigations include animal nutrition, biochemistry, chemistry, cytogenetics, genetics, plant breeding, entomology, forage management, plant pathology, plant physiology, and soil fertility. By the time of the merger, the emphasis was changing from forage to pasture management systems, and the in-house animal nutrition work had been substantially reduced.

The NWRC was authorized by Congress in October, 1965, in pursuit of the goals stated in Senate Document No. 59 (1959) and entitled, "Facility Needs--Soil and Water Conservation Research." The stated major purpose for the NWRC was "to gain basic information for the guidance of programs for the control and use of water and stream channel systems in areas where agricultural, urban, and municipal use of soil and water must be given consideration on an integrated basis." The distinguishing need stated was the "meager research information for the planning, design, and application of watershed protection programs in the New England area." The "watershed protection program" primarily referred to the 1954 Watershed Protection Act (PL92-566) gave the Soil Conservation Service, now renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the responsibility and authority to control floods on small watersheds. The Document also stated that "the research needs of greatest urgency in watershed engineering were precipitation-runoff relationships, sedimentation, channel stability, and sedimentation of valleys."

Watershed Research Program

Photo of the Pasture Laboratory located on Penn State's campus in University Park, PAThe NWRC was established in 1966 as one of the last two Watershed Research Centers to be formally added to ARS's watershed research program. Historically, this ARS program grew from numerous small-scale runoff and erosion studies initiated by NRCS in the 1930's and 40's, to include structurally based flood control design and hydrologic studies during the 1950's and 60's in support of NRCS's small watershed flood control program discussed earlier, and the water quality impacts of these programs during the late 1960's and 70's. Because most of NWRC's initial staffing and program development coincided with the period when water quality became a major issue in the U.S., the hydrologic research program developed had a heavy water quality and less of a watershed engineering emphasis. The NWRC program direction has been largely controlled by the perception of NRCS's needs and the primary hydrologic and water quality problems of the Northeast consistent with its mission.

The research on hydrologic components has followed an evolutionary pattern. Initial emphasis was on climate, infiltration, and surface runoff research, particularly in support of the variable-source-area concept of runoff production, and included flood prediction and forecasting at the small-watershed scale. By 1978, we switched to subsurface hydrology, particularly on defining the dominant flow pathways from soil to ground water to stream, with emphasis on infiltration, ground water recharge and the ground water discharge-streamflow interaction in a landscape and watershed context. Recently, research has been focused on defining the boundaries and flow controlling properties of the subsurface system, and variability, both spatial and temporal. Research on the chemical components was directed primarily toward phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N), pesticides, and geochemicals in ground and surface waters. The emphasis has been on P sources, losses, and transformations associated with runoff and stream transport, establishing the basic N relationships and balances within the watershed, identifying and quantifying the primary N source and sink zones, and using chemical data to identify hydrologic source-areas, generalized flow pathways, or zones where certain degradative chemical processes occur.

Click on the following link for Anecdotes from former employees.

Last Modified: 8/24/2017
Footer Content Back to Top of Page