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Farmers, Researchers Helping Clean Up Water

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Photo: Joe Courson

Pollution in Lake Oconee worries state officials. But farmers and scientists are working together to help protect the water.

Larry Risse looks forward to the twice-monthly, voluntary checks of the water flowing through his 100-acre farm. He wants to know if practices on his land somehow contribute to the pollution of nearby Lake Oconee.

"We need to know what kind of nutrients are being washed away from our fields," Risse said.

A stream runs though his farm, only a few hundred feet from a pasture rigged with special collectors that sample the rainwater running off the land.

Researchers with the University of Georgia and the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture check the quality of water entering Risse's farm, the runoff from nearby fields and the water quality when it leaves.

Farmers Often Wrongly Blamed

Farmers often get blamed for polluting water. But the research is finding that the impacts of land use vary greatly. Some farms do seem to add to the pollution problem.

"But in some cases, the water leaving the farm is cleaner than the water coming on the farm," said Dory Franklin, an ARS geographer.

On Larry Risse's farm, for instance, his pond acts as a big filter. As far as the current technology can detect, it's cleaning up the pollution.

"As (pollutants) slow down, they sink into the pond and stay in the pond, rather than going out the back," Franklin said.

Farmers, Scientists Work Together

The water that cuts through the Risse farm and other farms around the northern part of Lake Oconee eventually winds up in the lake. Pollution in Lake Oconee already worries state officials, since it has high bacteria and nutrient levels.

Many of the local farmers have raced to the lake's aid. By keeping a close, scientific watch on the water going in at various farms, the scientists can correct problems before they get out of hand.

The farmers test a sample themselves, while the UGA Agricultural Services Lab tests another for more detailed analysis. The feedback is valuable.

"Often, a farmer has no way of knowing how his practices are impacting the environment," said Mark Risse, a biological and agricultural engineer with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"In this study," he said, "the farmers are 'seeing' their water quality twice a month and after every big rain. They know exactly how their farms impact water quality."

Identifying Solutions

As they see the research results, the farmers know firsthand if changes to their lands help or hurt.

Wherever researchers find problems, they identify solutions. Some are as simple as fencing off streams to keep cattle out and providing alternative water sources. Others involve building buffer zones or grass strips to naturally filter water before it enters a stream.

Farmers also learn to better manage manure and other nutrients and use rotational grazing, which can help both them and the environment.

The research project looks for low-cost ways to solve problems. In some cases, the landowner actually profits from the changes.

"We can recommend lot of practices that make a farm more productive and improve the water quality, too," Mark Risse said.

The biggest benefactors are Lake Oconee and the people who use it. "The benefit is cleaner water for drinking, fishing, swimming," Franklin said. "Lake Oconee will last a lot longer."

Ultimately, the research could help more than Lake Oconee. The scientists say the approach they use is easily adaptable. It could be used to clean up many other lakes, streams and rivers in Georgia and nationwide.

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