Texas A&M University and Mississippi State University are partners in a critically important effort to protect water resources in the Southern United States. Researchers and educators at both schools are endeavoring to solve water-related problems that can potentially harm people, animals and the environment.
“The Southern Regional Water Program (SRWP) is a collaborative project among 13 states in the Southern U.S. that involves 21 different land-grant institutions, including Texas A&M and Mississippi State University,” says Mark McFarland, Regents Fellow and professor at Texas A&M, and an extension specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. “Over 120 extension, research and teaching personnel from these institutions work together to address critical water quality and water quantity issues across the region.”
McFarland has served as the SRWP regional coordinator since the program’s inception by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000. In his role, “I encourage teams of scientists from multiple states and disciplines to work together to address important water problems,” he explains.
His collaboration with SRWP partners at Mississippi State is especially notable. “Dr. Jimmy Bonner, state water quality coordinator, has been an important collaborator,” McFarland says. “Most recently, Dr. Bonner has worked as a member of the regional drinking water and human health team to develop a new program focused on proper disposal of pharmaceuticals (medicines) and personal care products, such as cosmetics. The program is called “Don’t Drug Your Drain.”
He explains that improper disposal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) is a growing concern. “Research has shown that these compounds remain in water even after treatment at municipal wastewater facilities,” explains McFarland. “While the potential health effects on humans and aquatic organisms exposed to low levels of these chemicals are being studied, proper disposal of any unused products should always be practiced.”
According to McFarland, the goal of the project is to increase public awareness of the issue and identify methods for proper disposal of PPCPs. “It has been coordinated with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Take-Back Initiative,” he adds. “Some cities hold free product collection days and some pharmacies will take expired and unused products. Otherwise, there are ways to safely dispose of most products in the household trash. Doing so can protect water quality and the environment.”
Other key areas of focus for members of the SRWP include conservation, irrigation systems, animal waste, watershed protection and stream restoration. “As population growth continues, demands on finite water resources and the potential for adverse impacts on those water resources are increasing,” McFarland says. “By sharing expertise among universities, our ability to understand and solve complex problems more quickly and efficiently is enhanced.”
Collaborators at each of the 21 institutions communicate regularly and can coordinate rapid response in emergency situations such as hurricanes and other natural disasters that can contaminate water supplies, he adds.
McFarland says the research conducted through the SRWP has been beneficial in a number of ways. “It has helped improve the efficiency of irrigation systems so agricultural crops can be grown with less water,” he explains. “In addition, it has demonstrated how pesticides and fertilizers can be used safely to protect and produce essential crops.”
The program has also succeeded in its public outreach. “Youth programs such as ’4-H2O’ have helped schoolchildren better understand the importance of protecting water resources,” McFarland notes. And, he says, the program has provided education and training to tens of thousands of citizens across the region. “Extension personnel work with researchers to conduct and interpret scientific studies focused on critical water issues,” he says. “Extension specialists in the SRWP then share this new information and technology with citizens in agricultural and urban watersheds across the region through publications and educational programs in their states. And the project hosts a regional website that assimilates project information and provides links to people and programs at each institution.”
McFarland says anyone can participate in the initiative to protect water resources. “Most states have programs to train private citizens to become ‘Watershed Stewards,’ like the Texas Watershed Steward program or to be volunteer water quality monitors,” he says. “Watershed stewards are trained to provide leadership in their communities to help protect water resources and volunteer monitors learn how to collect and test water samples from streams and lakes to track water quality and identify situations where more intensive testing is needed.”
Conserving and protecting water resources can happen at home too, McFarland contends. “Water conservation can be practiced in every home and business by taking the 40-gallon challenge, which includes doing things like using low-flow toilets and showers, managing irrigation systems and repairing leaks.”
Media contact: Lesley Henton, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-5591