Colorado Corn and CSU partner to develop ways to improve groundwater conditions and eliminate nitrates
November 22, 2016
Water. It's one of the most important substances in life, and the Front Range puts a great deal of effort into preserving it, monitoring it and improving its quality.
Nitrates seeping into groundwater has become a big issue in agriculture.
When it comes to bettering the condition of our groundwater, Erick Carlson, Colorado State University Ph.D. student in ecology, is on the prowl for a solution to nitrate runoff that works and is cost effective.
Carlson's research project, funded by the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee to the tune of $26,700, explores how wetlands and neighboring farmlands could help deflect nutrient runoff.
Nitrates can pollute groundwater because they are water soluble. For example, nitrogen pellets found in fertilizer dissolve quickly and flow with excess water into the groundwater supply.
Livestock manure also contains nitrates that contaminate groundwater. When rain or irrigation saturates soil, nutrients leach from the soil. Surface water then carries the nitrates into groundwater.
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"If nitrates come in at the wrong time, then they flow through the system into the groundwater," Carlson said.
Nitrates prevent red blood cells from absorbing oxygen in humans and have been linked to certain stomach issues. Though groundwater nitrates are not necessarily dangerous for adults, they can be deadly for children if the level is high enough.
Blue Baby Syndrome, a blood disease in infants six months or younger, is a potentially fatal disease caused by drinking nitrate-contaminated water. Mild symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting, where more serious symptoms may cause difficulty breathing, producing a gray or bluish tint to their skin, lips and nail beds. Because of the seriousness of this disease, finding a cost effective way to prevent soil nutrients from leaching into groundwater is vital.
In his project, Carlson examines how plants prevent nutrients from running into ground water. Carlson's method requires a gently slopping farmland with a wetland at the end of the slope.
When the soil becomes saturated and nitrates begin to leach from it, they will run down the slope into the wetland. Plants surviving in wetlands live in saturated soils and live off nitrates instead of oxygen. Plants such as cattails will pick up the nitrates before they have a chance to seep into the groundwater.
"Bigger plants can take up more nitrates," Carlson said.
Large cattails will be more efficient in picking up nitrates than their smaller counterparts.
Other practices use timing processes. They apply fertilizer and irrigation at differing times to prevent seepage.
However, these practices are costly to implement.
Once soil nutrients infiltrate past two meters into deep ground water, it cannot be filtered out naturally using Carlson's method. This system is useful to farmers and ranchers who don't have cities filtering their water.
Carlson, who lives in Weld County, said that he got the idea for the project because of the problem his county has with nitrate pollution in its groundwater.
He also worked for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program where he studied rare species and did wetland work. He mapped wetlands to observe the potential benefits of these ecosystems. It was then that he found the idea for his research project.
Colorado Corn, based in Greeley, Colo, funded the research. This organization is made up of the Colorado Corn Growers Association and the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee.
CCAC is in charge of investing in research, education, market development and promotion of agriculture industries, while CCGA is interested in the same aspects in a broader charter.
CCGA is more focused on efforts in policy. They team up with other organizations to accomplish the shared goal of bettering the agriculture industries.
"[Colorado Corn] actually has over $300,000 in very recent or ongoing research and market development projects," said Eric Brown, communications director for Colorado Corn. The funds given to Carlson's research project were used to buy necessary hardware, travel expenses and testing the analysis for measuring nutrient content in different solutions.
Mark Sponsler, CEO of Colorado Corn, said they chose to fund Carlson's project because "it looked like it had value that would support pubic concerns and efforts related to water quality and nutrient management."
In the future, this project could evolve into a method of nitrate filtration that is cost-effective and greatly improves water quality. ❖