College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

ISU part of team honored for excellence in multi-state water conservation research

Iowa State University is part of a team of 20 land-grant universities that has received a national award for water conservation research.

The 2014 Experiment Station Section Excellence in Multistate Research Award was presented to the research team on Nov. 3 by the Experiment Station Committee on Organization and Policy. The team was honored at an awards program during the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

The award recognized the universities’ exceptional collaboration on a multistate research project that helps farmers better use microirrigation systems to sustainably irrigate their land, especially during droughts and water shortages.

“This award recognizes outstanding interdependent efforts of researchers and extension specialists that have come together to tackle a priority issue that no one institution can address on their own,” said H. Michael Harrington, executive director of the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors. “This microirrigation project was selected out of more than 300 multistate projects. Since 1972, this research group has made major advances in sustainable agriculture and water conservation.”

Representing Iowa State on the team was Amy Kaleita, an associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, who studies soil moisture patterns and how to use sensors to generate high-resolution maps of soil’s water content.

“My research on soil moisture monitoring has supported gathering the data used to make timely, precise irrigation decisions,” Kaleita said. “My research is helping to determine how much water is in the soil at different locations. That’s important because one advantage with microirrigation is that water can be delivered right to where it’s needed.”

In Iowa, Kaleita’s research contributes to understanding how patterns of runoff and subsurface flow may vary throughout a field based on differences in soil moisture content. Her work helps to explain spatial differences in crop yield due to variations in the water that’s available to plants.

In the last five years, the multistate team’s research has led to new microirrigation equipment and tools that are easier to install, more durable and more precise. The advances have encouraged adoption of microirrigation systems, which has led to significant economic and environmental impacts.

In Idaho, farmers who used these systems saved 10 percent on labor and water pumping costs. Farmers in Puerto Rico were able to grow taro on a commercial scale despite dry conditions. In Oregon, microirrigation has reduced groundwater pollution and increased onion crop yields. Microirrigation systems also have helped to restore land disturbed by uranium mill sites on the Navajo Nation.

The multistate team, which works on what is officially known as the W-2128 Microirrigation for Sustainable Water Use Project, is supported in part through USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) by the Multistate Research Fund, established in 1998 by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act (an amendment to the Hatch Act of 1888) to encourage and enhance multistate, multidisciplinary agricultural research on critical issues. Additional funds were provided by contracts and grants to participating scientists.

“My goal is to ensure the science we invest in leads to solutions to today’s most pressing challenges,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA-NIFA. “One of those challenges is finding ways to feed the growing population while minimally impacting the environment. A safe, reliable supply of water is inextricably linked to food security. The five-fold increase in irrigated acres that took place during the 20th century cannot be repeated in the 21st century — there isn’t the space. Instead, we must increase efficiency of the irrigated farmland we have, and that’s what this project is doing.”

The award includes $15,000, which the research team will use to continue ongoing research. The group’s efforts are more critical than ever as the United States continues to experience extreme droughts that threaten water supplies and crops that depend on irrigation.

In addition to Iowa State University, the other participating land-grant institutions are: Auburn University; University of Arizona; University of California, Davis; University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources; Colorado State University; University of Florida; University of Hawaii; University of Idaho; Kansas State University; Mississippi State University, University of Nebraska, New Mexico State University; Cornell University; Oregon State University; University of Puerto Rico; Texas A&M AgriLife Research; University of the Virgin Islands; Washington State University; and University of Wyoming. The universities also collaborated with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Research Service.

The 2014 multistate research award is the latest honor to be earned by Iowa State for agricultural research with regional or national partners.

In 2012, Iowa State and the Iowa Soybean Association were part of a research team receiving the national Excellence in Multistate Research Award for its response to soybean rust, a disease threat to the nation’s soybean growers. In 2013, Iowa State received the North Central Region Excellence in Multistate Research Award as part of a research team working to improve swine nutrition.

The story first appeared here.