White House highlights IU’s role in initiative to preserve water quality on Indiana farmlands

A summit on water quality hosted by the Obama administration on March 22 highlighted a program to improve water quality in the nation’s heartland led in part by Indiana University.

Todd V. Royer

Todd V. Royer

The project is the Indiana Watershed Initiative, which uses watershed-scale conservation methods to reduce nutrient runoff from regional farms. Todd V. Royer, an associate professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is a member of the project led by University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative.

“It is an honor for our work to be recognized by the White House during this period of increased concern about water quality in the United States,” said Royer, who also chairs the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Nutrient Science Advisory Committee. “We’re confident that our research will provide information that can be used throughout the Midwest to improve water quality while maintaining productive farmland.”

An expert on the ecological and biogeochemical processes that affect water quality in streams and rivers, Royer’s work has a strong focus on Indiana farms. In his laboratory at IU, he and his students conduct work to identify and reduce the sources of pollution to water, such as nitrogen and phosphorus in agricultural regions, and road salt and pharmaceutical compounds in urban settings.

The Indiana Watershed Initiative, a part of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, combines two practical conservation methods that prevent nutrient and sediment loss from cropland. These are the planting of winter cover crops and the restoration of floodplains.

Winter cover crops are typically grasses or small grains grown between regular crop production seasons to prevent nutrient runoff and improve the soil. The restoration of floodplains is accomplished by re-engineering drainage ditches and small streams.

The initiative, which will pay farmers in two Indiana watersheds located in Kosciusko and Jasper counties to implement these practices, aims to affect 85 percent of the croplands under the project over the next four years, during which researchers will measure the resulting benefits to the area’s soil and water quality.

The initiative was highlighted the 2016 White House World Water Summit as part of the country’s efforts to successfully meet a national goal of reducing farm nutrient runoff by 40 percent. The summit was designed to bring together thought leaders, scientists and legislators working on innovative solutions to water problems as well as highlight current and future strategies for the use, conservation and protection of water.

An expansion of the Indiana Watershed Initiative was also announced at the summit. With farmer cooperation, Royer and collaborators at Notre Dame will grow the project to encompass economic valuation, working to quantify the economic and environmental benefits of conservation on farms. Results from the analysis could help promote implementation of these practices across the 11 million corn and soybean acres in Indiana.

Support for the expansion is made possible with support the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, Walton Family Foundation, Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana Corn Marketing Council as well as collaboration with Iowa State University.

The White House summit also coincided with the United Nation’s World Water Day, which has been celebrated on March 22 for more than 20 years as a day to focus attention on the importance of fresh water and advocates for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The summit was made particularly urgent this year due to a record-breaking drought in the West, severe flooding in the Southeast and the water-quality crisis in Flint, Mich.

The director of the Environmental Change Initiative is Jennifer Tank, Galla Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Notre Dame.

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