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USDA tool helps farmers track water quality improvement

By Spencer Miller, USDA, NRCS Special to the Couri

A nonprofit for sustainable agriculture recently launched a new metric in its calculator that relies on a popular tool from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Field to Market, the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, recently updated its Fieldprint Calculator that measures outcomes in the field to include a metric to measure water quality. This metric relies on NRCS' Water Quality Index for Agricultural Runoff, or WQIag, which enables farmers to input variables about their field, such as slope, soil characteristics, nutrient and pest management, tillage practices and conservation practices to calculate impact on water quality.
"The WQIag takes the complex scientific information of these variables and synthesizes them into a single number," said Shaun McKinney, team leader for NRCS' National Water Quality and Quantity. He added, "Water quality is complex. Experts have usually focused on one aspect of water quality - such as temperature, nutrients or pesticide content - instead of thinking about a more complete picture."
On the WQIag website, producers input information about their land, and the tool outputs a single rating on a 10-point scale with zero being very poor and 10 being excellent. Water quality measurements help farmers keep soil and nutrients on their field and out of the water supply.
"Agriculture is increasingly turning its attention to how to improve impacts on water quality," said Rod Snyder, president of Farm to Market. "The calculator provides the most convenient and all-inclusive way to look at overall sustainability on the farm, and the addition of the WQIag expands the tool's capability to water quality and helps farmers explore opportunities for continuous improvement."
The Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator enables farmers to assess corn, cotton, wheat, soybean, rice and potato operations in terms of land use, soil conservation, soil carbon, water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and now, water quality.
The metric's inclusion in the tool will help farmers track continuous water quality improvement on their farms. When experts do talk about the complete picture, their common vocabulary is math and science. It's not always easy to get producers on board with improving water quality, in part because conversations on this topic often quickly become highly technical, leaving most non-scientists behind.
WQIag addresses this problem with two features that set it apart from previous measures of water quality - simplicity and accessibility. First, the WQIag simplifies the result into a 10-point rating everyone can understand; second, it's available to anyone with an internet connection.
Before the WQIag, there was no simple way to rate water quality. Experts installed monitoring stations that tested water as it flowed off fields. These stations provide actual measurements, but they're expensive and interpreting the measurements requires a scientific background.
"Our solution was inspired by the Dow Jones Index," said NRCS environmental engineer Harbans Lal, referring to the well-known system that tracks investments like mutual funds and stocks. "We wanted to represent something very complex with a single, easy-to-understand number."
The calculator is a continuous project with additions of crop data and indicators. Current projects in process include a biodiversity metric and inclusion of alfalfa. The addition of WQIag builds upon the innovative private-public relationship between Field to Market and NRCS, which also partnered, along with technology consultant ZedX, Inc., to build soil erosion tools into the calculator.