New ISA Lab Provides Data Necessary for Progress
A visit to the Iowa Soybean Association’s (ISA’s) new water lab invokes a definite “Wow!” response.
ISA is the only commodity organization run by and for farmers to have its own water lab, provided by the investment of soybean checkoff funds.
ISA Environmental Programs and Services (EPS) Advisory Council Chair Jim Andrew recalls, “When ISA first became involved, through Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, in scientific water sampling of the Raccoon River watershed in central Iowa in 2000, it was natural to partner with Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), having DMWW do the scientific analysis of ISA’s farmer-collected samples, as it also was beneficial to the Water Works in the treatment of this important source of water for Des Moines residents.”
As ISA’s EPS has expanded throughout Iowa, Andrew notes, “Having our own lab provides efficiency and flexibility we didn’t have previously. We can be more responsive and serve farmers better.”
ISA EPS Director Roger Wolf says, “Our relationships with affiliated labs remain important to us. However, while other entities like the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Geological Survey do water monitoring, those agencies must use their funding to gather data that serves those agencies’ specific purposes, whereas our work is targeted for watershed implementation.”
This follows a theme in ISA’s approach, consistent with other EPS projects and On-Farm Network® programming.
Andrew says, “We’re not trying to replace any academic work, but having our own lab allows ISA to render a consistent and credible, science-based picture of Iowa’s water quality concerns. Having information to document the work farmers are doing can also help in discussions with academic researchers, policymakers and those who would introduce regulations.”
Because ISA is farmer-led, farmers know they can participate without threat of consequence, whereas, they might question a third party’s involvement.
In addition, Andrew notes, “Data can be used to leverage farmers’ checkoff investment with public and private grants. Thus, the water lab is critical to attracting funds for future projects to address water quality issues in Iowa.”
The Lab’s Sophisticated Technology
The centerpiece of the water lab is an ion chromatograph, which can separate and detect the dissolved substances commonly present in water samples taken from streams: chloride, fluoride, nitrate and phosphate. These negatively-charged ions conduct electricity in proportion to their concentrations. Changes in conductivity are detected as the ions are separated, producing results that indicate how much of the substance is present in the water sample. The analysis is robotically controlled so testing can be conducted through all hours of the day and night.
The lab also has sophisticated equipment designed to measure coliform bacteria in samples. Those results are used to monitor E. coli, which indicates presence of fecal matter in streams.
Other capabilities of the lab include detection of ammonia and measurement of pH, solids and turbidity (water cloudiness).
The lab supports the work of ISA EPS in several ways. Water analysis helps assess the effectiveness of land practices intended to improve the condition of Iowa lakes and streams. Data from the lab also provides the foundation for investigative projects like paired watershed studies, aquatic life assessments and erosion/sediment loss studies.
For the Lyons Creek project being conducted in three adjacent sub-watersheds of the Boone River, samples are taken to assess and compare nutrient loss related to infield practices.
In addition, the lab plays in important role in assessing the effectiveness of ISA’s bioreactors, installed at sites throughout the state to remove nitrate from tile lines before it can enter Iowa streams.
The EPS team hopes to offer farmers well water testing services, as well.
As Wolf notes, “Our board has asked ISA to be leaders in the area of environmental efforts. This lab is one more example of building our capacity. We cannot say what future issues may be, but we will be prepared to respond.”
Andrew agrees, “As water quality and availability becomes more important to our environment and livelihoods, this lab facility will allow ISA to positively impact the lives of all Iowans in years to come.”