Grant awarded for water quantity risk research to South Dakota State University, organizations

South Dakota State University
Farm Forum

BROOKINGS, S.D. — The Natural Resource Conservation Service has awarded a Conservation Collaboration Grant to South Dakota State University and The Nature Conservancy for a water quantity risk research project to take place in southeastern South Dakota.

A coalition of outreach and research professionals from SDSU and The Nature Conservancy proposed the project to address the critical need for implementing soil health and edge-of-field practices to mitigate water quantity risk at the field and watershed scale. The research, titled “Roadmap to Water Resilience — Valuing Water as a Resource for Improved Ag Land Profitability and Reduction of Downstream Flood Risk,” will serve as a proving ground to develop a roadmap for the optimal targeting and application of these practices in other watersheds across South Dakota and the Midwest. The $887,687 grant will enable the research team to obtain these goals.

NRCS CCG proposals must address some of South Dakota’s prominent natural resource concerns. An emphasis has been placed on project proposals that build the capacity of local watershed groups with development and implementation of effective projects, which the SDSU and The Nature Conservancy project proposal accomplishes.

John McMaine, assistant professor in the department of agricultural and biosystems engineering and SDSU Extension water management engineer, serves as the principal investigator for the project.

“There is evidence that soil health and other conservation practices can improve water management at the field scale during both dry and wet times,” McMaine said. “This research will measure impact of conservation practices on water risk (too much or too little) at the field level, which translates to improved yield, profit and resilience for the farmer.”

The research will also measure the impact at the watershed scale, which could significantly reduce flood risk downstream. The team hopes to quantify how conservation practices can reduce soil moisture risk by preserving a little more of that early season moisture for the dry summer months, which should translate to a yield bump.

“Our methods in this research will hopefully provide farmers with a dollar value of conservation practices because of the improved water management that those practices provide,” McMaine said.

To carry out the project, the Willow Creek watershed, located northwest of Sioux Falls, S.D., was selected as the research location. The watershed’s size, which amounts to about 30,000 acres, makes it small enough that improvements could be measured if widespread implementation is achieved. In addition, the area has seen significant efforts and investment in research and conservation, providing a solid foundation of collaboration to build this project. The project will monitor soil moisture in approximately 30 fields in the watershed, along with meteorological data, economic variables and social science survey data.

The three main components that will accomplish the goal of the research include:

  • Analyzing and demonstrating how watershed modeling can help plan, target and predict environmental and agricultural benefits of practice implementation.

Field-scale monitoring and watershed scale modeling for demonstration of landscape performance in dealing with water quantity issues and validation of modeling accuracy.

  • Determining barriers and drivers for producer adoption to improve the environmental and economic performance of working agricultural lands through social and economic analyses.

In addition to team members from SDSU and The Nature Conservancy, collaborators from South Dakota Corn, South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, Minnehaha Conservation District, Minnehaha County Farm Bureau, South Dakota Farm Bureau and Friends of the Big Sioux River will provide value to the project’s goals.

The first stage of the project will include reaching out to farmers in the watershed, followed by evaluation of available tools this winter and installation of field monitoring equipment in spring 2021. The project commenced on Sept. 1, 2020, and is scheduled to conclude in August 2023.

“A lot of investment goes into conservation, and it can sometimes be random acts of conservation rather than an optimal investment system that can actually achieve watershed objectives,” McMaine said. “What we hope to do here is to pilot methods to optimize that investment.”

John McMaine, assistant professor and SDSU Extension water management engineer, serves as the principal investigator for the project.