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Water Quality Data System Aims to Prevent Farm Nutrient Runoff

By Kimbra Cutlip

Stanching the flow of fertilizer nutrients and manure from farmland during rainstorms doesn’t just help the crops and farmers’ bank accounts—it protects the waterways downstream where these nutrients are far less welcome.

But to identify the best runoff reduction techniques, farmers need to know not just when and where the nutrients wash off their fields, but what those nutrients are. Not all nitrogen and phosphorus are the same; some come from fertilizers farmers apply, while others come from natural processes in the land, or from wooded regions or development upstream from farms.

In the July issue of the journal Water Research, Gurpal Toor, a professor and extension specialist in the University of Maryland’s Department of Environmental Science and Technology, describes a network of sophisticated monitoring stations across the state to identify what flows off the land every few minutes during rainfalls. He and his team have been collecting runoff samples and associated data over the last few years to capture a detailed picture of nutrient loss at different times during different types of rains.

“What we are trying to do here with some of these advanced sensors is actually get more high-intensity, high-resolution data so we can see what is happening at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the storm because that's going to tell us a different side of the story,” Toor explained.

Watch a video on Toor’s work.

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