While the Aggies of Texas A&M University and the Auburn University Tigers will meet as opponents on the football field this weekend, off the field the two universities are partners in a critically important effort to protect water resources in the Southern United States. Researchers and educators at both schools are endeavoring to solve water-related problems that can potentially harm people, animals and the environment.
“The Southern Regional Water Program (SRWP) is a collaborative project among 13 states in the Southern U.S. that involves 21 different land-grant institutions, including Texas A&M and Auburn,” says Mark McFarland, Regents Fellow and professor at Texas A&M, and an extension specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. “Over 120 extension, research and teaching personnel from these institutions work together to address critical water quality and water quantity issues across the region.”
McFarland has served as the SRWP regional coordinator since the program’s inception by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000. In his role, “I encourage teams of scientists from multiple states and disciplines to work together to address important water problems,” he explains.
His collaboration with SRWP partners at Auburn is especially notable. “Dr. Charles Mitchell, professor and agronomist, and Dr. Eve Brantley, assistant professor and water resources specialist, at Auburn have been important collaborators,” McFarland says. “Most recently, Dr. Mitchell and I worked together on a seven-state project investigating the use of slow release nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrogen is an important plant nutrient, but if too much gets into water it can create problems.”
He explains that excess nitrogen in drinking water causes a condition known as methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome,” where low blood oxygen levels can lead to infant mortality.
“In surface water, too much nitrogen causes excess plant growth which can deplete oxygen levels in water – leading to fish kills in streams and lakes and the primary cause of the ‘Dead Zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico,” he says.
The Dead Zone is an area of the gulf where a condition called “hypoxia,” dangerously low oxygen levels, has been identified, and can cause loss of marine life.
“The goal of the project is to find ways use nitrogen efficiently to maximize crop production while minimizing losses. Doing so saves money and protects the environment,” adds McFarland.
In addition to nutrient management, other key areas of focus for members of the SRWP include water quality and conservation, irrigation systems, animal waste, watershed protection and stream restoration. “As population growth continues, demands on finite water resources and the potential for adverse impacts on those water resources are increasing,” McFarland says. “By sharing expertise among universities, our ability to understand and solve complex problems more quickly and efficiently is enhanced.”
Collaborators at each of the 21 institutions communicate regularly and can coordinate rapid response in emergency situations such as hurricanes and other natural disasters that can contaminate water supplies, he adds.
McFarland says the research conducted through the SRWP has been beneficial in a number of ways. “It has helped improve the efficiency of irrigation systems so agricultural crops can be grown with less water,” he explains. “In addition, it has demonstrated how pesticides and fertilizers can be used safely to protect and produce essential crops.”
The program has also succeeded in its public outreach. “Youth programs such as ‘4-H2O’ have helped schoolchildren better understand the importance of protecting water resources,” McFarland notes. And, he says, the program has provided education and training to tens of thousands of citizens across the region. “Extension personnel work with researchers to conduct and interpret scientific studies focused on critical water issues,” he says. “Extension specialists in the SRWP then share this new information and technology with citizens in agricultural and urban watersheds across the region through publications and educational programs in their states. And the project hosts a regional website that assimilates project information and provides links to people and programs at each institution.”
McFarland says anyone can participate in the initiative to protect water resources. “Most states have programs to train private citizens to become ‘Watershed Stewards,’ like the Texas Watershed Steward program, or to be volunteer water quality monitors,” he says. “Watershed stewards are trained to provide leadership in their communities to help protect water resources and volunteer monitors learn how to collect and test water samples from streams and lakes to track water quality and identify situations where more intensive testing is needed.”
Conserving and protecting water resources can happen at home too, McFarland contends. “Water conservation can be practiced in every home and business by taking the 40-gallon challenge which includes doing things like using low-flow toilets and showers, managing irrigation systems and repairing leaks.”
Media Contact: Lesley Henton, News & Information Services at Texas A&M University; (979) 845-5591; firstname.lastname@example.org
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