Kianna Marquez: The University should invest more in water quality research

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 - 2:56pm

For as long as I can remember, the western basin of Lake Erie has become coated with slick, green slime at the end of each summer. As one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie experiences a sudden increase in microbial life that festers into coats of toxic algae that can span over 620 square miles on its surface. Although a phenomenon of natural contamination, these algal blooms occur mainly due to increased agricultural runoff made possible by no-till farming

In a recent paper, Dr. Jennifer Blesh, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, addressed the relationships between agricultural practices and water quality downstream in the Lake Erie basin. She and her colleagues explain that soil health assessments in agriculture are critical for improving water quality because soil properties influence water filtration and nutrient availability, both of which contribute to overall soil function. Given that there are methods to assess soil health’s impact on water quality in smaller water entities, the University should dedicate more research toward developing reproducible soil health indicators that can be implemented to a regional extent.

As of now, research teams like Blesh’s utilize regulated modeling to no avail: The models are insufficient and inconsistent among ecosystems across the basin. Blesh and her team detail the faults of the current modeling systems: “Most modeling studies in the Lake Erie region were validated with limited field observations, consider a limited range of best management practices and lack data linking different management strategies to changes in soil health.” This type of modeling highlights specific issues that can be solved with efforts by large academic institutions, an endeavor that the University should pursue to improve the effectiveness of the tools used by teams in this important field research. Furthermore, it’s worth detailing these specific issues in order to indicate what the University could resolve with more allocated resources. 

These models pose issues because they lack the detailed simulation and visualization of biological processes important to soil function, such as microbial community makeup and diversity. They are restricted because they only evaluate biological processes of interest on topsoil, leaving the subsoil unevaluated even though these same processes occur there. Additionally, these models are insufficient because they include oversimplified representations of macropore flow that are easily manipulated by agricultural practices when there are other interactions between processes that are worth noting. Given that simulation model development is an ongoing process, the University should work to adjust these models using empirical and mechanistic methods and focus on applying them as a regulated policy tool.

In improving these models accordingly, the University could help research teams consolidate generalizable knowledge on how agricultural practices affect soil health and water quality at the regional scale. Administration may argue it doesn’t make sense to pursue such efforts to compile a comprehensive understanding of soil ecology. In essence, it doesn’t make sense to develop an all-encompassing evaluation of a large area that consists of several different ecosystems with unique needs. While this rationale could stand for areas with drastic changes in their landscapes, it’s important that we don’t ignore the benefits that comprehensive evaluation could bring for the various watershed regions of Michigan and the Midwest. In other words, it’s essential the University understands how critical this research in the Great Lakes is in advancing our understanding of watershed ecosystems everywhere.

Furthermore, the University should understand that advanced research efforts toward soil health and water quality could create advantages to academia, to Michigan’s agriculture and to Michigan’s watersheds. As one of the largest public institutions in the state and one of the most influential academic institutions in the world, the University should allocate more resources, personnel and attention toward research for developing comprehensive evaluations at watershed scales. We need this research for the improvement of our state and the water quality of one of the world’s largest freshwater sources, especially since we have continued to enable destructive agricultural policy in Michigan.

Above all, we have a responsibility as a public research institution to inform the public of the benefits of imposing different management practices on soil health and water quality. The need for public reaffirmation is clear. “Despite decades of awareness among stakeholders that eutrophication presents a global sustainability challenge, minimal progress has been made, in large part because of social and economic barriers within the agricultural sector,” writes a number of authors including Thomas Zimnicki and Yao Zhang from the American Institute of Biological Sciences. As a campus, we need to do this to advance the publics perceived efficacy and their understanding of why the implementation of better practices is important for a vast marine ecosystem and the general climate. I urge the University administration to consider the environmental research sector as one that you should devote your resources and attention to for the benefits that could result in our furthered understanding of the Great Lakes watersheds.

Kianna Marquez can be reached at kmarquez@umich.edu.