That was the bottom-line from Phil Barnes, a research engineer at Kansas State University who has been monitoring surface-water quality at Marion Reservoir and other impaired Kansas watersheds.
Barnes shared his findings Thursday with a small group that included representatives from the three Marion County cities—Hillsboro, Marion, Peabody—that depend upon the reservoir for drinking water, two practitioners from agriculture and a staff member from Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Barnes’ primary field of interest is eutrophication, the process that results in blue-green algae blooms.
Based on samples taken during 2009 at four sites on the north and south ends of the reservoir, Barnes said, “The data we collected last year was a whole lot better than in 2007 and 2008.”
The levels of sediments and nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, entering the lake are key components in eutrophication.
“These are the numbers we really need to start making some difference in the quality of water in the lake,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is figure out the sources of these nutrients by measuring the inflow and tributaries.”
Levels of nitrogen and phosphorus decreased in 2009 from previous years, “suggesting that we did have a reduction of erosions in the fields.”
An eye on atrazine
Barnes said he is also measuring bacteria levels, particularly E. coli, as well as the level of atrazine, a popular herbicide used by farmers.
The local profile of atrazine has risen within the past year after the cities of Hillsboro and Marion joined a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta, a leading manufacturer of the herbicide.
Barnes said the level of atrazine detected at Marion Reservoir meets the federal drinking-water standard, even though “it may not be the level we’d like to see in the lake.”
“I feel good about (meeting the standard) but I’d like to see less atrazine in the water,” he said. “That’s one of the things we need to work on with our farmers here and talk about different practices.”
Rickey Robert, county agricultural agent for K-State Extension, asked Barnes how much atrazine was actually coming through Marion Reservoir.
Barnes said the federal standard is 3 parts per billion (ppb) and the average for the year at the reservoir is below 2 ppb. He added that readings during spring—the peak season of atrazine application and heavy rains—was as high 5 to 7 ppb.
Pushed by Roberts to quantify the amount in pounds, Barnes said it would equate to around 1 percent of the amount that was being applied by farmers—meaning “hundreds” of pounds compared to some reservoirs in Kansas with levels in the thousands of pounds.
“That’s just a spit in the bucket to me—that’s just not much,” Roberts said. “My point is, there’s probably always going to be some (in the water), so how much do we think we can effectively remove off that number?”
Barnes replied, “I think if you get the timing right, and are careful when you apply the product…we can reduce loss of atrazine up to 80 percent. These numbers are not very big, but we can make them smaller.”
Need help from producers
Reductions of troublesome chemicals levels will be possible only as more landowners and producers get on board with conservation practices, Barnes said. The range of practices within the watershed range from good to nonexistent.
Peggy Blackman, who convened the meeting as director of Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy, said she is aware of “many, many” fields along the tributaries of the Cottonwood River that have not implemented any conservation practices.
“These are people we need to (talk) to,” Barnes said. “For some reason they haven’t been in government programs before, or done conservation work on their land.”
Barnes is hoping additional grant money will enable them to make more visits to explain the value of conservation practices—both to landowners and the public.
“They’re losing fertilizer and they’re losing topsoil because it’s going into the reservoir,” Barnes said.
But Roberts suggested the recruitment effort likely will be challenging and prolonged from now on.
“We’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit,” Roberts said, referring to producers who have came on board quickly because they are convinced of the value of conservation practices. “The higher-up fruit is going to be harder to reach.”
Roberts suggested the testimony of neighbors will be more persuasive than grant-funded visits from a university researcher or government worker.
Barnes agreed, noting that when farmers step up as ambassadors for conservations, programs are far more effective than when they don’t.
Sometimes farmers are open to engage in conservation projects but their nonresident landowners aren’t always amenable to the idea, for a variety of reasons.
Blackman did report one breakthough, though. A large parcel of land on the north end of the reservoir recently changed hands from an owner who was not interested in soil conservation to one who is ready to get on board with the installation of 12,000 feet of terraces.
“We need more stories like that,” she said.