Bridging the gap between research and application: Developing extension and education resources for water quality based on state-of-the-art hydrological science CALS Impact Statement uri icon


  • Abstract

    The goal of this project is to develop tools and information, based on the most current science, that environmental protection professionals can use to make better management decisions about enhancing water quality.


    While it is in everyone's interest to protect our nation's water resources, our strategies for controlling the flow of potential contaminants from the landscape to rivers and lakes are outdated. In fact, most of our management practices for controlling agricultural pollution are based on research that was done from the 1930s to the 1950s. Not surprisingly, geosciences like hydrology have made substantial progress over the last half-century. Although most of these scientific advances are well documented in professional journals, this information has not translated into improved water-quality protection practices or tools.


    In addition to our various grassroots interactions with water quality professionals, we have initiated a program to develop user-friendly, web-based resources that synthesize relevant scientific information for teachers, extension agents, watershed planners, and governmental agencies. The online program also includes a growing number of water resource tools that are based on the best and most current science. We have focused on two areas, runoff mechanisms and subsurface transport. We have developed, and are continually improving, a website that explains scientific advances in controlling runoff and subsurface transport. This information can completely change the way we think about pollutant transport. The website also provides examples, animations, and photographs to illustrate the processes involved. Our computer models and scientific papers will also be Web-accessible.

    Among the most exciting features of this resource are point-and-click, map-based tools that allow users to generate maps indicating hydrological sensitivity or groundwater contamination risks. Within the next 12 to 24 months, we will include maps for all of New York State and perhaps the entire Northeast. At present, our tools have been developed only for a few test counties in New York.


    This project has changed the way water quality professionals and government agencies think about land management. For example, this program introduced the term "hydrologically sensitive area," or HSA, into the water resources vernacular. The term refers to locations in the landscape that are prone to generating runoff. The HSA concept has become part of the national "phosphorus index" effort to control phosphorus contamination of rivers and lakes. The hydrological models developed as part of this project have been adopted by several state agencies and by the New York City watershed programs. Additionally, we have begun modifications to two common, internationally used water quality models the Soil Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) and the Generalized Watershed Loading Function (GWLF) to update their hydrologic routines so that they will be consistent with current hydrological science.

    The online component of this project is incomplete, but we are already getting enthusiastic feedback from professionals around the world. Because this project is still in progress, its full impact on improving water quality has not yet been realized.

    Funding Sources

    • Federal Formula Funds - Research (e.g., Hatch, McIntire-Stennis, Animal Health)
    • State or Municipal (e.g., NYSDAM)
    • Other USDA (e.g., Water Quality, Special Grants, NRI)


    • USDA-ARS at Pennsylvania State University (Bil Gburek) -
    • USDA-NRCS at Walton, NY (Gary Lamont) -
    • Untied States Geological Survey (Mike McHale) -
    • New York City Department of Environmental Protection -
    • New York State Department of Environmental Conservation -
    • Watershed Agriculture Council -
    • Delaware County Department of Watershed Affairs -
    • Cornell University Department of Crop and Soil Science -
    • Cornell University Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science

    Key Personnel

    • Tammo Steenhuis, Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
    • Art Lembo, Department of Crop and Soil Science, Cornell University
    • Larry Geohring, Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
    • Pierre Gerard-Merchant, Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
    • Michael F. Walter, Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
    • Brian Richards, Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University