Small "Super" Device Could Hold Key to Better Soil, Water

Feb 2, 2021

A state-of-the-art tool is helping researchers in Indiana better understand the effectiveness of soil-conservation practices.

A small device, known as a "super gauge," gathers data around-the-clock on water quality in the Wabash River in New Harmony.

Ray McCormick, a farmer in Knox County, explained the Wabash is a primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Mississippi River, and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

"The Wabash is the biggest contributor, as a percentage per acre, to the Gulf hypoxia zone," McCormick shared. "The Wabash River is very pristine, and it's quite the asset for our state, but the watershed that goes into the Wabash has been highly degraded."

McCormick added the super gauge will help users to better understand whether soil health practices like no-till farming and cover cropping are reducing nutrient runoff and thus, improving water quality.

Mike Starkey, a farmer in Boone County who owns land where the U.S. Geological Survey monitors a network of super gauges, said water on his fields flows into Eagle Creek Reservoir, the source of drinking water for Indianapolis.

"Phosphorus levels and nitrate levels are actually higher in-stream than what's coming off the farm, so the water is better after it exits our farm," Starkey pointed out. "That's not only a good thing to hear for myself, but for the whole environment."

Agriculture researchers from around the globe have visited Starkey's farm to observe the super gauge. He stressed it is important information for the future of farming.

"You go to the grocery store and you're going to see a lot more organic," Starkey observed. "People are interested in not only healthy foods, but where's those healthy foods coming from? So, the excitement is there, and I'm a step ahead to improve my soil, also the water as well."

And McCormick is hopeful the super gauge will make Indiana an even bigger leader in the use of conservation practices like cover crops.

"We will understand, as these practices come into play, what percentage of improvement we'll have at these gauge systems," McCormick maintained. "So, this is the time. There's never been as much momentum for conservation as there is right now."

The Wabash River super gauge, which costs several thousand dollars, was installed with funding from The Nature Conservancy, along with public and private partners, including Nestle Purina.