Virginia Ishler Livestock & Environment

The recent events surrounded by hurricanes Harvey and Irma illustrate how fragile our environment is to natural disasters.

Regions of the country can go from too much moisture to not enough, and it appears these extreme occurrences are happening with increased frequency.

Pennsylvania has had its share of extreme weather, ranging from devastating droughts to regional flooding. These have implications for water quality and quantity as well as nutrient management.

All Pennsylvania residents have a vested interest in our natural resources, and as such the doors of communication have to be open between agriculture, industry and home owners.

I am involved in a research project recently funded by USDA titled “Securing Water for and From Agriculture Through Effective Community and Stakeholder Engagement.”

This is a multistate project that includes Arizona and Nebraska, which also have water issues.

Good quality water and air are two resources we take for granted. Natural and man-made factors can threaten both, which is why focusing on one industry such as agriculture is not going to solve the problem in the long term.

A major focus of this research project is stakeholder engagement from the ground up to examine what the water-related issues are in various communities.

The traditional flow of information involves taking the research results and applying them to the real world. However, there can be a major disconnect between the scientific community and everyone else.

Basic research is typically performed in a controlled environment and the results are fairly clear cut.

But the real world does not work that way, and sometimes it feels as if we are trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.

A lot of the time, there are other extrinsic factors that researchers do not account for that are real obstacles to successful implementation.

There have been critics of the funding to clean up the Chesapeake Bay because it appears that improvements are moving at a snail’s pace despite the amount of money invested over the years.

Yet there have been major changes in on-farm production practices and technologies that keep nutrients from entering surface waters.

The elephant in the room that no one wants to address is why water quality has been so slow to improve.

One reason is not having all the “actors” involved in the process. Successfully finding a solution is not easy and requires input from all stakeholders.

This includes local agricultural producers, land owners, nongovernment businesses, water providers, government agencies, academics, special interest groups, volunteer organizations and many others.

The local community is much better positioned to find innovative solutions than a research study that is narrowly focused on just one or two areas.

A component of this recently funded project is to collectively define the issues, find the appropriate solutions and foster agreement on implementation.

The ultimate goal is to produce a template for developing the process and recording what worked and what did not work so that this approach can be used nationally.

Arizona and Nebraska have water concerns that are different from the Northeast’s, which is why strategies will vary depending on the region and the state.

This project has numerous faculty and staff members covering a wide range of specialties. The three main teams are engagement, social/behavioral and biophysical/engineering.

Two very different geographical areas have been selected in Pennsylvania to test this approach.

The human factor weighs heavily on this kind of project, and it is difficult at this time to predict what the outcome will look like.

We hope the result will be one in which the community comes together on ways to improve the watershed and that the stakeholders’ ideas will be instrumental in the solution.

Virginia “Ginny” Ishler is a nutrient management specialist and the manager of Penn State University’s dairy complex.