Guest Blog: Behind the Scenes with Water Sampling, Part II

NOTE: Today’s guest blogger is Bailey Griffin, an undergraduate student intern with the Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! team. We’ll turn it over to Bailey to introduce herself and tell you about the water quality research she’s working on this summer.

My name is Bailey Griffin, and I am interning for Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! this summer. I am originally from Kasson, a town in southeastern Minnesota. I will be starting my junior year this fall at Iowa State University pursuing a degree in Biological Systems Engineering, Bioenvironmental Option.

My internship experience with Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! has been such a pleasure. From the other interns’ guest blogs, you can see that we do a variety of activities that include outreach events, research sampling, and numerous other duties. I also work heavily with the Ag Water Management  research team, so I spend most of my time outside, water or soil sampling, as well as in the lab doing test analysis on those samples.

Before this internship, I knew that conservation practices were proven useful or beneficial through research, although I didn’t know how exactly those results translated into publishable work. Keep reading because I am going to take you on a “behind the scenes” look at how those results make it onto paper!

Below I will be showing you how we collect water samples from one of our long-term research sites in Gilmore City, Iowa. In particular, we are measuring the water collected for nitrates. Nitrogen is one of the key nutrients that plants need to grow and can be found in most fertilizers as well as naturally in the soil. In agricultural lands, nitrate levels can be high due to the high crop nutrient requirements, the application of fertilizers, and nutrient leaching as water moves through the soil. A nitrate standard of 10 mg/L is in place for safe drinking water.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for a 45% total nitrogen load reduction in the state of Iowa. Being a part of the Mississippi River Watershed, all of our water from the state of Iowa eventually will empty into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. The nitrates in the water contribute heavily to the hypoxic zone or dead zone. The research we’re doing at Gilmore City (and other sites around the state) helps us to better understand how land management practices affect nitrate transport in the environment, and how these practices can help support the goals of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The research being conducted at the site in Gilmore City helps to determine how different conservation practices and nutrient management affect nitrate loss and crop yield. The Gilmore City research site has been participating in water quality research for over 20 years. This particular project that I’m working on started in 2010 and is currently planned to continue through this year for a full four year data set to be able to analyze the long term effects of these practices.

Pictured above: Multiple plots from Gilmore City research site showing different agricultural practices in place; we are to measuring the difference in nitrate levels under different treatments.

Multiple plots from the Gilmore City research site showing different agricultural practices in place; we are measuring the difference in nitrate levels under different treatments.

To be able to collect the water from the plots, there is a tile drainage network installed in the ground in which the water is able to penetrate through these pipes and collect after a rain. There are a variety of plots with various practices on each plot. For example, plot 12-2 has corn with no-till, cover crop, and spring nitrogen application, while plot 22-4 has conventionally tilled soybeans, no cover crop, and fall nitrogen application, and so on. From the picture above, you can see the distinction from plot to plot, both vertically and horizontally. Gilmore City’s site has a total of 72 plots and consequently has 72 possible water samples.

The water from the tile drains is pumped to one of the sumps and stored in a plastic container until we are able to manually collect the water samples. Each sump collects tile drainage water samples from three plots.

Pictured above: left and center, exterior of sumps which are connected to the tile drainage lines in each plot. Right, interior of a sump showing the meter readings; and below (not visible) there are separate pumps for plot.

Left and center: Exterior of sumps which are connected to the tile drainage lines in each plot. Right: Interior of a sump showing the meter readings; and below (not visible) there are separate pumps for plot.

We are then able to collect the water samples that came from each plot. We fill and label our sample bottles, and file the information into a binder. It is very important to be detail-oriented when labeling and filing to be sure the results are accurate. We also measure the meter readings from  the pumps to track the amount of water being pumped from the tile drainage lines  and the amount of rainfall to be able to make accurate calculations. The bottles containing the sampled water are then taken back to campus to be analyzed for nitrates. The results are then processed and conclusions made about the benefits or disadvantages of the certain practices.

Pictured above: left, Alex, an undergraduate research assistant, taking water samples to be later tested for nitrates. Right, The information that we document take to einsure that the samples are taken accurately which includes the date, sample number of the bottle which the sample goes in, and the meter reading.

Left: Alex Martin, an undergraduate research assistant, taking water samples to be later tested for nitrates. Right: The information that we document to ensure that the samples are taken accurately which includes the date, sample number of the bottle, and the meter reading.

Being able to see full circle the process of researching agriculture conservation practices, I have learned the difficulties and challenges that arise with it. Agricultural research is so dependent on the weather! If there is no rain, there are no samples. Frequent sampling is also really important.  Taking these samples is a half-day project and is done twice a week. For results to be accurate and substantial, it also needs to be done for more than one growing season. That is a lot of time put into a project!

If you would like to learn more about this research project or see the most up-to-date results, explore the links below.

I hope my “behind the scenes” snapshot gave you some insight on where your results are coming from. I know my experience with Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! has been so eye-opening and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to share!

Bailey Griffin

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