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/ARSUserFiles/oc/discoveries/2018/images/nat.jpg Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Saving Water—a Precious Global Resource

Irrigation system

Water supplies are extremely critical to many parts of the United States, especially in California and the Southwest. Precipitation in California, for instance, is highly variable from year to year and also geographically variable within the State. The State's Southeastern deserts receive less than 5 inches of precipitation a year while its north coast gets 100 inches. ARS scientists have saved millions of gallons of water on farms in California and in other dry States by developing an automated irrigation scheduling system that targets water to where and when it is needed most. The technology monitors soil and crop conditions and records rainfall levels so that it can time irrigation with a sophisticated variable-rate center-pivot irrigation system. The technology is the first of its kind for center-pivot irrigation systems, which are used on more than 50 percent of the Nation's irrigated croplands.

Monitoring Drought From Space

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started using ARS computer models in June 2016 to help monitor drought from space. The system monitors and predicts drought estimates in the United States from satellite images and other sources. Satellites and computer models generate maps of water loss from plants and soil, and NOAA uses the maps in its drought monitoring and land-surface modeling efforts. The maps can show State-by-State drought percentages, as well as the percentages of crops impacted. Growers then use this information to prepare for droughts. Individuals can enter a zip code to receive current drought data for their areas.

ARS scientists are also working with satellite imagery and computer models in collaboration with grape growers, including the California wine producer E. & J. Gallo Winery, to improve irrigation water management on vineyards that stretch across thousands of acres. The effort is helping E. & J. Gallo increase its yield and grape quality and reach its goal of reducing water use by 25 percent.

In other related research, ARS scientists in Parlier, CA, collaborated with NASA and the State of California to develop the Satellite Irrigation Management Support, which uses satellite data to monitor and measure crop water use. Additionally, the scientists developed the Soil Water Balance Model to improve the global monitoring of root zone soil moisture availability. The soil moisture model is being used by a number of users, including USDA crop analysts.

Related Information

Article: Saving Water, Reducing Runoff, and Cutting Costs

Making the Unusable Profitable

Field of wheat

Renewable fuels are providing an economic boost to many rural economies. The need for bioenergy crops also has increased the demand for new "biofuel" crops that can succeed on marginal lands, where it is difficult or impossible to grow food crops. ARS scientists in Lincoln, NE, have developed the new perennial switchgrass 'Liberty' that is well adapted to the Upper Midwest and produces 530 gallons of bioethanol per acre, comparable to the 567 gallons-per-acre rate from corn grain grown on higher quality, food-cropping land. The comparable rates are important because relying too much on corn as an energy source will drive up its price. This new ARS-developed switchgrass can grow on marginal lands where other crops can't necessarily grow. It is also high yielding, meaning that it will generate more revenue for both farmers and the bio-refineries they supply. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuels are already derived each year from switchgrass, and the new variety should enhance the crop's economic value.

Related Information

Article: New Switchgrass Variety Promises More Biofuel at Lower Cost
Publication: Registration of 'liberty' switchgrass

Restoring Productivity After Natural Disaster

A range fire

In each of the last 5 years, wildfires in the 17 U.S. western States averaged 4.6 million acres burned. As a result, ranchers have to replace fences, watering stations, corrals, barns, and stored feed, as well as reduce their herd sizes or make other arrangements to feed their cattle. The Federal Government also loses more than $54 million a year in rangeland rental fees. Erosion following wildfire also is a major concern, not only for the productivity of the range site but also for water quality. ARS scientists in Burns, OR, Cheyenne, WY, and Miles City, MT, have developed management strategies that reduce the buildup of dry plant material that fuels large wildfires, making wildfires less likely and less damaging when they occur. They also have found ways to minimize the long-term damage from erosion after a fire by restoring native shrubs and grasses.

Related Information

Article: Rangeland Grasses Recover Quickly After Fire

Got Soil? There’s an App for That

USDA rangeland scientist tests the new LandPKS mobile app

More and more, smartphones are proving to be a quick and convenient way to access everything from weather reports to restaurant reviews. Farmers are also using them to make decisions to maximize profits and increase their productivity and the sustainability of what they produce and how they produce it. ARS scientists in Las Cruces, NM, with support from the United States Agency for International Development, have developed the Land-Potential Knowledge System (LandPKS) app for iOS and Android phones and tablets to help farmers better monitor their soil and vegetative (crop) conditions so they can make better decisions about when to irrigate, weed, and fertilize their crops. The app is designed to crowdsource local and scientific knowledge to inform risk management, thereby helping to yield greater land productivity, economic return, and environmental enhancement. The app is available for download at

Related Information

Article: Smart Phone App Balances Conservation and Production
Research Project: Land-Potential Knowledge System-LandPKS


Cleaning Water on Earth—and in Space

Researchers carefully search a wetland debris sample for amphibians

One of America's most widespread and costly environmental problems is nutrient pollution in its streams and waterways caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment. Using existing technologies to remove nitrogen from wastewater in treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay alone costs an estimated $8.2 billion. ARS scientists have come up with a game-changing water purification technology to remove nitrogen from wastewater at one-third the cost of existing technologies. ARS has teamed up with a commercial partner to expand use of the new technology in household septic tanks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where 52,000 septic systems need to be upgraded to be able to remove nitrogen. The new technology could cut the cost of these upgrades by two-thirds, saving up to $446 million in Maryland for septic upgrades. The technology is also being provided to NASA so that astronauts can use it to recycle wastewater in space.

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