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What We Do

The Agricultural Water Quality Program (AWQP) develops, demonstrates, validates, and promotes agricultural Best Management Practices (BMP’s) for Colorado producers. BMP’s are recommended methods and structures designed to prevent or reduce water pollution to the extent technically and economically practical. Support, funding and advice from commodity groups, independent crop consultants, individual producers, state and national regulators continues to guide the work of the AWQP and helps ensure enhanced impact of our team’s efforts. Due to the adaptable nature of the AWQP our team has a wide variety of resources developed and maintained over the program’s history. This work includes such diverse issues as; private well and septic educational materials, limited irrigation, nutrient management, agronomics and economics of conservation tillage, and many more. Described below are summaries of the program’s research focus areas. Please reach out (contact us) with questions about any of these projects.

Edge of Field Monitoring

One current focus is monitoring the effectiveness of a diverse suite of BMPs on water quality. Edge of Field (EoF) water quality monitoring is the most direct way to assess agricultural water quality runoff. Water quality monitoring includes installation of flow measuring devices, automated water samplers, soil moisture sensors, groundwater piezometers, and weather sensors. Research includes collecting baseline water quality data then quantifying the effects of implemented BMPs over time. The team conducts research on developing low-cost water quality monitoring equipment. The goal is to make EoF water quality monitoring affordable to the producer. Additionally, the team is working to better understand the connection between the soil health and water quality. When feasible physical, chemical and biological soil health indicators are incorporated to complement the water quality research.

Irrigation installation

Field site located at the Irrigation Innovation Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. A 1.5 H Flume with approach and Teledyne Avalanche water sampler.

  • Collecting baseline water quality data from corn production under furrow irrigation
  • Assist the research farm with instrumentation to quantify irrigation efficiencies
  • Possible implementation of filter strip to reduce sediment and nutrient loading

A 2-inch throat trapezoidal flume. Teledyne Avalanche water sampler. Field site located near Mead, Colorado.

  • Collecting baseline water quality data from sugarbeet production under furrow irrigation
  • Research determines the contribution of sugar beet production nutrients and sediment to water quality
  • We work directly with stakeholders on proactive solution to real world challenges

Filter Strip Study

Over the past decade, implementation of filter strips to improve water quality has become popular among producers. The AWQP program is testing the effectiveness of these filter strips. A filter strip is typically a plot of grass or native vegetation that lies between an agricultural field and a waterway. It is designed to intercept pollutants and sediment before the runoff enters a water body. Aside from the primary benefit of improving water quality of farm runoff, secondary benefits of filter strips are turnrows and forage for on-farm use or cash crops.

A 1.5 H Flume and Teledyne 6712 water sampler
  • Water sampler installed before and after the filter strip
  • The purpose of this research is to compare the difference between water quality entering and exiting the filter strip
Field site with a 1.5 H Flume and Teledyne 6712
  • Implementation of filter strip to reduce sediment and nutrient loading
  • Site discharges to the Little Thompson River, listed as one of the EPA’s Impaired Waterways 303(d)

Conservation Tillage Research

demonstration site, started in 2011, compares three tillage systems at the CSU Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center (ARDEC) north of Fort Collins, Colorado on a 14 acre surface irrigated field. Strip-till, minimal till, and conventional tillage are established in production-length plots (>1000ft), each replicated twice within the field. The minimum and strip-tillage treatments are intended to maintain 30% residue cover at the time of planting to meet the Natural Resource Conservation Services (NRCS) definition of conservation tillage.  The AWQP is comparing the Total Suspended Soils (TSS), Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen (TKN) and Total Phosphorus (TP) in each of the tillage types. Understanding the relationship between soil and water quality will improve the way agricultural systems are managed.

Side by side comparison of tillage types. Strip till (left) vs. conventional till (right). Located at ARDEC outside of Fort Collins, Colorado.

  • Comparing water quality runoff from conventional tillage, minimal-till, and strip- till
  • The definition of conservation tillage requires at least 30% of the soil surface is covered by crop residue at the time of planting
Lab results for Total Suspended Solids

Lab results for Total Suspended Solids (Listed from top to bottom): conventional till, strip-till and minimal till

  • Conservation tillage at one of the AWQPs field sites resulted in an increase in macrofauna quantity, water infiltration rates, and aggregate stability and major reductions in Total Suspended Solids, Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen and Total Phosphorus
  • More guidelines for implementing conservation tillage are available online

Soil Health

Accessing soil health/quality can be an integral part of understanding the overall ecological health of an agricultural system. The AWQP team also analyzes soil parameters including; soil bulk density, infiltration, soil macrofauna, soil fertility and residue cover. This data is utilized to better interpret water quality data. The program will be starting more soil health projects in 2021.

July 2021, a new collaboration formed with the Wrighton Lab to test soil microbes in conventional tillage, minimal tillage and no till soil. 

Side-by-side comparison study of low-cost, open-source, automated infiltrometer with industry-standard Meter Group SATURO at the IIC Headquarters in Fort Collins, CO

Side-by-side comparison study of low-cost, open-source, automated infiltrometer with industry-standard Meter Group SATURO at the IIC Headquarters in Fort Collins, CO. These instruments allow the team to evaluate the effects of agronomic management practices on soil water infiltration rate, a key parameter of soil health and an important factor in edge-of-field water quality. Photo credit: Dylan Casey

Alfalfa Crediting

There is currently some evidence in the literature that current land grant Universities’ year one and two alfalfa nitrogen credits may be too low on some fields. There is a clear need for more research and outreach. In order to assess these recommendations in Colorado, in 2017 a study established field sites at three research stations (ARDEC, Rocky Ford, Fruita) and one on-farm site with a sandy loam or loamy sand soil type. Soil samples are taken at each site to a depth of three feet. A 0-8” representative sample is collected from the block to assess routine fertility conditions and identify residual soil nitrogen, phosphorus and any other potentially yield limiting factors.

Low Cost Technology to Improve Environmental Monitoring

The AWQP team is working on a development and testing of a low-cost water quality sampling system. This system is intended to significantly reduce the cost of water quality research equipment. These devices will help reduce the cost barriers to expand EOF monitoring sites and increase access to entities that cannot afford research grade equipment.  The photos below depict the field-testing phase with the low-cost and traditional water quality samplers side by side. Preliminary results show the low-cost sampler demonstrating promising results as compared to the traditional water sampling system.

Commercial grade autosampler (left) in a side by side comparison test with a low-cost water sampler (right) developed by the AWQP.

Rain gauge, temperature and humidity sensors protected by a 3D printed radiation shield.

Rain gauge, temperature and humidity sensors protected by a 3D printed radiation shield. Real time monitoring data is accessible through cellular telemetry.

For more information, check out this video!

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