"Smart" ground water regs under development...............Tuesday, January 27, 1998

This map shows the relative vulnerability of Indiana ground water to contamination by agrichemicals. Pesticides and fertilizers move into ground water at various rates, depending on a number of factors.In Indiana there are no less than 90 different kinds of soil, but only one set of regulations for ground water contamination by agricultural runoff. However, an agricultural engineer from Purdue University is working on an online computer data base and program that would regulate agrichemicals on a per site basis.

Designed by Bernie Engel, the new "smart law" uses a computer to examine various environmental variables and prescribe solutions -- in this case, chemical regulations for specific areas."Other states apply blanket regulations, but Indiana is looking to do something somewhat different," Engel says. "Instead of just using one number, and saying that that is the proper amount of pesticide to use throughout the state, we're working to create an on-line computer data base and program that would tell pesticide users how much of the chemical they could use on a particular piece of land."

Currently, no matter if the land is sandy or clay, wet or dry, hilly or flat, the regulations stating how much agrichemical can be used are the same.

However, varying conditions have a great impact on the amount of agrichemicals that seep into water. Engel has found that 75 percent of the detectable pesticides that seep into ground water come from just 25 percent of farmland.

According to Engel, there are 90 different major types of soil in Indiana, each with its own characteristics of pesticide movement into ground water. These characteristics were combined with other data from sources, such as the U.S. Geologic Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, to create the first ground water vulnerability maps of Indiana.

"Right now we're using these maps for educational purposes, to see if we can assist those in the problem areas to avoid getting to the point where laws or regulations are necessary," Engel says. "If we get to the point where regulations are needed, on the other hand, it makes sense to not treat every situation the same. You may find that differences in conditions might make practices unacceptable that are used just a few miles away."

The next step for the research will be to incorporate site-specific information such as pesticide types, application rates, methods of tillage and other farming practices, and weather models for each area. Engel expects to have these more comprehensive and detailed maps within the next five years. Hoosier farmers then would be able to go to Purdue's World Wide Web site, plug in the variables for their situation, and plot out a map that details the acceptable levels for the chemical they intend to use.

"In more than five years you can let your imagination venture a bit more," Engel says. "A farmer's application computer might communicate with another computer to determine what's acceptable and what's not acceptable for that area and adjust the application rates without any direct human involvement.

However, Engle says that political hurdles may prevent the system from ever becoming a reality. "Writing regulations in terms of risk is a very different concept from writing regulations as a yes/no, can or can't do it dynamic," Engel says. "The general public wants no risk, but there's always some risk with virtually anything."

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