Area farmers are being asked to participate in a three-year crop field study to verify data and calibrate an online Nutrient Loading Model.
The program is part of a $590,000 Conservation Innovation Grant received last fall by Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality Research.
The grant is matched by Heidelberg's Tributary Loading Program, said Rem Confesor, director of the water quality lab.
Although the national model is available for use now, Confesor said it has not been calibrated or verified for local conditions.
"This information will help us validate the Nutrient Tracking Tool, a web-based model for the field scale," said watershed coalition coordinator Cindy Brookes. "It has been available on the web for anyone's use but has not been calibrated, verified or tested for accuracy in our region or watershed."
"Eventually, we plan to have this model used throughout northwest Ohio and eventually the entire Great Lakes," Confesor said.
The Sandusky River watershed was chosen for the study because of the structure already in place between the Sandusky River Watershed Coalition, the water quality lab and area Soil and Water Conservation Districts, he said.
"We have a good relationship with the coalition, the water quality lab and Soil and Water Conservation District," he said. "We have good cooperation between all groups involved."
Part of the grant money is being used to hire a technician through a joint board of directors of the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Seneca, Sandusky, Wyandot, Crawford and Erie counties to handle data collection and technical aspects of working with farmers on the measurements the model requires.
"We'll be gathering other data from farmers' fields across the whole watershed," Confesor said.
The technician will collect soil samples and samples of crop tissue left on fields after harvest, as well monitor cover crops used to determine which ones work best. He or she also will test water infiltration, compaction and sample crop tissues.
Brooks said the testing and measurements will benefit the model but also the farmers because they can see which methods are working best in their fields.
Farmers will be asked to input data into the model and check if they get the same results on the model as they actually get on the farm.
"Farmers will be trained on how to use the model and then be asked to run scenarios within the comfort of their own home or office to verify the results for this region," she said.
In addition to data collected through the technician, the model will be further verified using U.S. Department of Agriculture edge-of-field study data from throughout the western Lake Erie basin.
Confesor said there are a few local sites participating in the study by collecting water runoff into streams at the surface and at tiles using current farming practices and then implementing best management practices and collecting runoff again to find out the changes in nutrient loading.
"We want to measure the flow and the nutrients coming out of the flow, both from the tiles and the surface runoff," Confesor said.
For example, he said the study is following three or four years of crop rotation - corn, soybeans and wheat - creating the same conditions in fields and testing water runoff.
"After crop rotation, we would change something in one of the fields," he said. "Maybe change one field to no-till or change the way fertilizer is applied, but the other site would be maintained as before so we can see the effects of the change."
Data collected is to be put into the model, and every year the model is to be updated.
"In the end, we believe that by farmer input into the model as well as real-life BMP data, this model will provide realistic outcomes for both the environmental and economic impacts of making a land management change on the farm before heading to the field," Brookes said.