Soil – Agriculture’s Reservoir

Post submitted by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant for the Iowa Water Center

The soil is like a sponge that holds water so it is available when crops need it. Wetter soil at the surface prevents deeper infiltration and so water is lost as surface runoff. Not only this, but soil moisture is also a variable that influences the timing and amount of precipitation in a given area. This is due to the impact it has on the water cycle. This cycle circulates moisture from the ground through evaporation and plant transpiration to the atmosphere and back to the ground again through precipitation. Therefore, the amount of water stored in the soil can affect the amount of precipitation received during the growing season.

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Satellite imaging from the European Space Agency. The center figure depicts imaging derived from SMOS.

According to Hornbuckle (2014), “we enter each growing season ‘blind’ as to whether or not there will be enough soil moisture and precipitation to support productive crops.” If there were a way to document and record water storage in the soil besides field measurements, we would have a better ability to predict future weather patterns and therefore, make better field decisions. Satellite remote sensing tools such as the European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) and NASA’s Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) can be used to take such measurements. Before these tools can be used to estimate water storage and improve weather and climate predictions, researchers must compare them to what is actually measured within the soil. This process of confirming accuracy of a tool is called validation.

A project led by Dr. Brian Hornbuckle, and funded by the Iowa Water Center in 2014, sought to improve and validate SMOS and SMAP in near-surface soil moisture observations of Iowa. Hornbuckle used a network of soil moisture measurements located in the South Fork Watershed as a standard to validate the accuracy of SMOS and SMAP. At each site, soil moisture and precipitation was measured.

Some of the results of this research project are presented in a 2015 article published in the Journal of Hydrometeorology.  Rondinelli et al. found that SMOS and the network of soil moisture measurements detect different layers of the soil. SMOS takes measurements of the soil surface while the network observes a deeper level of soil. These results will allow scientists to better evaluate the accuracy of measurements from SMOS and SMAP and ultimately enhance our understanding of the water content of the soil surface.  As noted earlier, it is this layer of the soil that determines how much precipitation is lost to surface runoff.

In a subsequent study published in 2016, Hornbuckle et al. published further results that indicate new ways of using SMOS. Researchers found that SMOS can be used to look at water in vegetation, as opposed to water in the soil.  Hence SMOS might be used in the future to observe the growth and development of crops, and perhaps estimate yield and the time of harvest as opposed to conducting field surveys from the ground. It also has the potential to measure estimates of the biomass produced during the growing season, which could be useful to reach bioenergy production goals.

Research like this demonstrates that a single tool can be used in multiple ways to better understand our landscape. Not only this, but preliminary studies of SMOS also show that it is important to verify the accuracy of tools before relying on them. Like all research, the work is not done to identify all the potential uses for SMOS and SMAP.  A new NASA grant, in partnership with the Iowa Flood Center, will help get researchers even closer to making satellite measurements a useful, scientific tool to understand water near the soil surface.

References

Hornbuckle, Brian K. “New Satellites for Soil Moisture: Good for Iowans!.” A Letter from the Soil & Water Conservation Club President (2014): 20.

Hornbuckle, Brian K. Jason C. Patton, Andy VanLoocke, Andrew E. Suyker, Matthew C. Roby, Victoria A. Walker, Eswar R Iyer, Daryl E. Herzmann, and Erik A. Endacott. 2016. SMOS optical thickness changes in response to the growth and development of crops, crop management, and weather. Remote Sensing Environment (180) 320-333.

Rondinelli, Wesley J., Brian K. Hornbuckle, Jason C. Patton, Michael H. Cosh, Victoria A. Walker, Benjamin D. Carr, Sally D. Logsdon. 2015. Different Rates of Soil Drying after Rainfall Are Observed by the SMOS Satellite and the South Fork in situ Soil Moisture Network. Journal of Hydrometeorology. April 2015.

 

Cedar River (essay)

In honor of publishing the 2017 Spirit of the Water Essay Contest, the Iowa Water Center staff have decided to join in and answer the chosen essay prompt for the contest.

This year, the prompt was: Think of a body of water that you are familiar with and the different kinds of benefits that it provides to the surrounding area. Why are places like that worth protecting?

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Dr. Richard Cruse fishing in 2013. Photo submitted by Cruse.

Cedar River

Story submitted by Dr. Richard Cruse, Director of the Iowa Water Center

What is it that makes lakes and streams so special to so many? Is it what our eyes see, or what our noses sense, or maybe it is the sounds associated with diverse life along these bodies of water?  Maybe it is the sense of warm or maybe chilly water as you walk in a stream or the temperature of a fish you hold taken from the water.  And what about the personal feelings of freedom that comes from bonding with constantly flowing water as it finds it way around the next bend?  And then there is the mystery of what lies beneath the surface, a surface that reflects your image like a mirror no one can ever possess.

My personal bond with streams was first tied to fishing in the Cedar River.  I spent countless hours sitting on the bank with a fishing pole in hand, dominantly early in the morning or late at night pursuing what was then our sport fish – the channel cat.  As I learned what worked (and of course what did not), success was the norm.  Catching was not the challenge it once was, nor was it as exciting as it previously had been because I had experienced it many times.  Yet, my drive to repeat the fishing activity grew.  What was truly driving my urge to fight mosquitos and suffer welts from an occasional poison ivy or nettles encounter?  It was not the thrill of catching a fish, the likes of which I had caught many times before.  It was, and still is, the bond and sense of freedom that comes from a natural water connection.

My sense of connectedness with the natural world has grown from the seeds planted in my childhood along the Cedar River.  I’ve fished for REAL sportfish in what some consider quite glamorous fishing locations – Minnesota, Ontario, and even in Europe.  I’ve camped along lakes in the Canadian Wilderness about which many can only dream.  I’ve camped and hunted in the Saw Tooth Mountains of the Idaho Rockies following, crossing and drinking from mountain streams overflowing with energy, freedom, and the laughter of Mom Nature.  My desire to return to these locations is immense, but no greater than the desire to return to the sand bars on which I camped as a teenage on the Cedar in Bremer County.

The passion of those that have experienced the unexplainable connection with our lakes and streams drives our desire to maintain or improve water quality and natural resources in Iowa and the nation.  The magic of the water moments cannot be duplicated or reproduced with any technology known to man.  My dad told me often, not everything with value can be bought, and in fact, things with the most value have no price tag.  My bond with the natural world is priceless and my desire to share these experiences with family and friends knows no bounds.  May everyone sometime experience the choir of frogs singing relentlessly through the night, the echo of rippling water flowing across a rocky river bottom, the fragrance of fresh air heavy with night time dew, and the unexplainable joy that only these experiences can bring.

Daily Erosion Project goes International

This week Dr. Richard Cruse, Professor in Agronomy at Iowa State University and Director of the Iowa Water Center, was invited to speak at the Rendez-vous végétal 2017 in Quebec, Canada. He provided a presentation on the cost of soil erosion and introduced the Daily Erosion Project to an international audience of soil and water professionals.

Below is an article published in le Bulletin des agriculteurs, a publication on new agricultural technologies in Quebec.  The article is written by Nicolas Mesy, an agronomist and freelance reporter and photographer. Topics the article explores include soil loss in Iowa, the science behind the Daily Erosion Project, and how soil erosion assessments can be a tool in decision-making.

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Podcast spotlights a pioneer of precision conservation

Post originally appeared on the Iowa Learning Farms website by Ann Staudt

Precision agriculture is a unique, emerging field, and it is certainly one that is rapidly evolving before our very eyes. The complex world of remote sensing, big data, ag informatics, statistics, and on-the-ground farm management means there’s a whole lot of data out there … how do we make sense of it all?

Meet Dr. Amy Kaleita. High energy, eternal optimist. Agricultural engineer. Lover of learning. Passionate teacher and researcher. Soil Whisperer (or some might say Soil Listener).

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Kaleita’s work at Iowa State University is truly at the intersection of conservation, information technology, and the world of precision agriculture. While precision ag technology is commonly used by farmers and crop consultants across the state of Iowa today in such applications as nutrient management (variable rate technology) and precision seed placement, Kaleita is on the forefront of the next generation of precision ag – precision conservation. Kaleita’s research efforts range from studying different sensor technologies, including both embedded [contact] sensors, such as in-the-ground soil moisture sensors, as well as non-contact sensors [data collected from drones], to optimizing the layering of those different technologies to obtain the best data sets possible.

However, collecting the data is just the start —  the real challenge emerges in sorting through huge amounts of data and trying to make sense of it all!  Which is just where Kaleita comes into play, evaluating and analyzing the vast amounts of data collected in the field. She strives to identify patterns and linkages that can help us better understand the relationships between such factors as crop yield variability, precipitation, soil moisture, hydrology, transport of dissolved contaminants (such as nitrate-nitrogen), and on-the-ground conservation practices. As Kaleita puts it, a big part of her job is trying to “understand uncertainty.”

She goes on to explain, “In an agricultural context, there are so many sources of unexplained variability … things that you do on the landscape that cause results, but they cause different responses under different conditions, and so how do those conditions change over time and space?

“The soil is very different, and it changes over time, and it certainly changes over space. The rain, and the air temperature, and the wind speed, and all of that stuff cause responses in the crop and they cause the interaction between the crop and the soil to change. And so [we’re] trying to understand all of the things that cause those differences, and then trying to design systems that can be responsive to that variability.”

Tune in to Episode 27 of the Conservation Chat for more of this fascinating conversation with Dr. Amy Kaleita!  You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and on iTunes.

Geographic Information Systems at Iowa State University

We “dig” the data…

Written by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

Big data requires big software and big ideas. This can especially be  true when it comes to managing our water-related resources. Today, we have access to numerous data points about our soil and water that can assist in understanding current landscape conditions and to plan for the future. Information such as this is not useful unless it can be analyzed by the experts using software such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Recently, Inside Iowa State published a story regarding the geographic information systems support and research facility located on the Iowa State University campus. This facility provides a myriad of resources for teaching and tools related to using GIS for mapping and analyzing data. This facility not only trains students and provides extension services, but is also making an impact on “groundbreaking” research. Knowledge can be a powerful tool not only in enabling better policy and practices, but to inspire researchers to tackle innovative projects.

Work associated with the facility is The Daily Erosion Project. This is a research project housed within the Iowa Water Center and is driven by vast amounts of natural science information for better assessment of our soil. This research endeavor uses a multitude of data sources, including soil types, hill slopes, daily precipitation, and other data points to estimate soil movement and water runoff from the rolling hills of Iowa on a daily basis. All of this information is processed and transformed by a team of scientists and analysts to enable better decision-making on land uses in the Midwest. You can read more about it from Dr. Richard Cruse here.

What can the Daily Erosion Project be used for, you ask?

Output from the tool can provide an inventory of soil loss at the watershed level, assess the potential for water storage capacity in the soil, and be used to identify sensitive areas to target the use of conservation practices.  As the project acquires more information and interest by the public, it is expanding. Currently, the tool is growing to provide assessments in Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Illinois.

Our landscapes are ever-changing. Because of this, it is energizing to see the tools and the talent at work through research facilities and solution-centered projects to tackle the critical problems we face in managing our soil and water resources.

 

Monona Demonstrates its Commitment to Water Quality

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Monona Fire Department’s demonstration of the infiltration characteristics of the permeable parking lot. Photo contributed by Eric Palas.

Story submitted by Eric Palas, Project Coordinator for Clayton County SWCD

The City of Monona is in the rolling hills of Clayton County in Northeast Iowa.  The picturesque town of 1,500 is known as the “Garden City of Iowa.”  It is a local hub for outdoor enthusiasts just a few miles from the Mississippi River.  Monona serves as an example of a community that recognizes its connection to its water resources, and is taking steps to protect and improve them.  In 2014, the city created a permeable parking lot near their family aquatic center.  The permeable lot soaks up surface water that once carried sediment and other pollutants downstream to Silver Creek.  This summer, the city continued its efforts by installing a permeable roadway adjacent to the parking lot.

In 2012, Monona joined with twenty-two cities, five counties, and seven soil and water conservation districts to form the Turkey River Watershed Management Authority (WMA).  WMA members agreed to work together to assess and reduce flood risks, improve water quality, and develop a plan to address these problems.  The process allowed the city council and staff to better understand the importance and benefits of controlling storm water runoff.  Monona’s leadership realized that downstream flooding could be reduced and water quality could be improved by including storm water control practices when city infrastructure was designed or replaced.

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Permeable roadway completed this fall. Photo contributed by Eric Palas.

The permeable parking lot carried a price tag of about $260,000.  The project would not have been possible without the Water Resource Restoration (Sponsored Projects) Program.  The Sponsored Project program allowed Monona to defer a portion of the interest on its sewer project loan, and use those funds for watershed protection practices.  The program is a joint effort of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Finance Authority, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.  The permeable roadway project was also supported by the Sponsored Projects program.

While Monona was able to obtain funding to make these projects possible, the city understands the need to protect Iowa’s water resources.  The Monona City Council recently adopted a new Storm Water Management ordinance.  The ordinance requires property owners and developers to implement storm water management plans for all new commercial and residential development.  In 2012, the city completed $2.6M of Phase I improvements to its wastewater treatment facility and is currently working on $1.8M of Phase II improvements to the sanitary sewer drainage collection system.  Both construction phases will improve and protect water quality by more effectively processing wastewater.  All of these efforts demonstrate Monona’s commitment to protect the watersheds that it is a part of.

Farmers are Covering Iowa

Written by Shannon Moeller, Project Coordinator for the Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative.

The Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative is a new Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Water Quality Initiative project that will run through 2018. This project is through the Iowa Seed Association in collaboration with the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Corn Growers Association, and the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

This project seeks to increase the number of cover crops in seed corn production acres around the State of Iowa through outreach efforts and cost-share opportunities for growers. In the project’s first year, nine seed corn companies chose to partner with us in this effort and promote the use of cover crops among their growers. This resulted in cost-share for over 36,000 acres among 175 growers in 24 counties across Iowa.

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Seed corn production acres are a great location for cover crops for many reasons. Seed corn has a shorter growing season than commercial corn. Depending on the weather, which varies from year to year, harvest can start before Labor Day and is often finished before the end of September. During the summer growing season, there are many trips across the field with sprayers and detasslers. In July, every 5th row is typically mowed down because those are the “male rows” and are no longer needed after pollination. End rows are often taken out earlier than the rest of the field, as well. This can leave a seed corn field compacted and often with little residue after harvest, which is much less than for commercial corn fields.

Because the seed corn plants are shorter and there are gaps every few rows, aerial application and interseeding methods for cover crop use can be quite successful in seed corn acres. Sunlight is abundant, and so as long as there is a timely rain, those fields can be green with cover crops by the time the rest of the field is harvested. There’s also time to drill cover crops or to broadcast them with fall fertilizer after harvest. This is because seed corn harvest is often over at least a few days before commercial corn and soybean harvest begins.

I am currently travelling throughout Iowa to different counties and visiting with growers – many of whom are new to cover crops. With each stop, I am taking photos of cover crops at various growth stages in different areas. This is to capture the successes these growers are having in promoting their soil health and improving water quality at the same time.