2016 News - Environment: sustainable ecosystems and resource conservation

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Michigan water use: surfing the delicate balance between producing food and protecting the environment

Michigan’s rich water resources make the state attractive for economic development. Water is critical to all sectors of agriculture, but those needs must be balanced with others vying to use the same finite supply, including the stream ecosystem. Expertise within the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) in the areas of water quantity and water quality management is poised to support the growing demand for the state’s water, while simultaneously protecting these enviable resources that are so important to sustaining the quality of life in Michigan.

Water shortages in some areas of the state during critical points in the growing season mandate irrigation use to avoid significant yield losses in high value specialty crops, such as seed corn and vegetables. Irrigating ensures that crop inputs, such as energy, fertilizers and moisture, are fully utilized. The MSU irrigation program works with producers to help them maximize yield, while minimizing runoff and loss of water and nutrients below the root zone. Working with Enviroweather staff members and Lyndon Kelley, MSU Irrigation Educator based in St. Joseph County, BAE faculty member Steve Miller has lead efforts to increase the use of irrigation scheduling tools.

Laws passed in 2006 were intended to help prevent heavy agricultural water use from damaging the ecosystem. Ecosystem health was measured by the sustainability of the existing fish populations in streams and rivers. In an effort to maximize both environmental protection efforts and efficiency of crop production practices, the MSU irrigation management program offers extensive training on Michigan water laws. This involves providing technical support to policy groups that are exploring ways to improve implementation of the laws and farmers who are trying to understand and fulfill what the law requires of them.

Training programs utilizing webinars, seminars, and workshops have been delivered throughout the state, and technology developed in other states has been tested, modified as necessary, and then implemented to improve irrigation management. The MSU program has earned the respect and trust of producers who have collaborated on in-field scale experiments, and in turn, encouraged other producers using irrigation to adopt more efficient water use practices in their own operations.

BAE students gain hands-on practical skills by being actively involved in the processes of installing soil moisture sensors, logging data, accessing remote data, and then analyzing the extensive data collected from on-farm research plots.

Photo of irrigation control system uniformity check

Jennifer Jury reviews an irrigation control panel while conducting a system uniformity check. 

Photo of Steve Miller conducting irrigation scheduling workshop

Steve Miller conducting an irrigation scheduling workshop.