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Scientists Speak - World Water Day - Understanding Watershed Secrets for Water Conservation - Tomer
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Mark Tomer and Sarah Porter Study Results Along Beaver Creek in Central Iowa


ARS Celebrates World Water Day: High Tech Tools - Understanding Watershed Secrets for Water Conservation

Mark Tomer, ARS Soil Scientist, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (Ames, IA)

Dr. Mark Tomer is a soil scientist at the ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa. He is currently involved in research which concerns gathering, analyzing, and managing topographic data in the Midwest. Using tools such as geographical information systems (GIS) and remote sensing via Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), he has been able to gather extensive data on the watersheds in this area, including current land use, soils, and terrain differences down to the level of individual fields. These tools can then be used to connect the flows of water in each area of interest. Agricultural planners can ultimately use the information presented to develop water conservation methods, while also being more aware of hazards such as flood zones.

What is the objective of your project?

“Our aim is to facilitate locally led conservation planning within agricultural watersheds using spatially detailed data on land use, soils, and terrain and a consistent approach to identify conservation practice placement options for improving water quality.”

Can you tell us about your research project and the international collaboration involved?

“We are developing watershed databases and tools that can use detailed spatial data to identify locations where water flows that accumulate on the landscape can be slowed for a period long enough for natural processes to improve the water quality. We leverage research data on conservation practice effectiveness and agency guidance on practice design standards to suggest placement criteria of a variety of practices. There has been interest in the ACPF expressed from Canada, the Netherlands, Kenya, and New Zealand. All our tools are freely available for others to use and modify.”

How has your work with international partners benefitted your project? What skills/expertise/other contributions have they brought to this research?

“Our efforts have been presented internationally at the New Zealand International Watershed Conference and at ESRI ArcGIS in Africa relating to analytics software, but there are no active international collaborations.”

What are some of the critical research areas that still need to be addressed?

“First, understanding the best way to quantify the water quality benefits of conservation is a key area for research; there are several efforts in early development and planning to use results of practice placements from the ACPF in watershed models. Second, as we move this effort from the upper Midwest to other parts of the country, there is a need to understand different types of practices being used in different landscapes and agricultural systems, or how existing practice placement tools may need to be modified for new areas. Third, we are working to analyze ACPF results from a regional perspective in ways that could help state and federal agencies identify policy and budget priorities that are customized by landscape region.”

Since we’re commemorating World Water Day, our audience will be thinking about the importance of water conservation and the theme of “nature for water” – using natural solutions to overcome water challenges in the 21st century. What is one thing you would like everyone to remember about this topic?

“I think what we offer with the ACPF is exactly in tune with this idea. Natural solutions to our water (supply and quality) issues can be found within many of our natural landscapes, it is an understanding of how to identify those potential solutions that we want to develop and promote at local scale and in local communities. A key point is that the best approach to manage water is one that provides benefits widely, through many small measures (often small structural practices) that are distributed across the landscape.”