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Protect Groundwater

There is considerable public concern about water quality, and agriculture is coming under increasing scrutiny regarding practices that can affect water quality. Many pesticides and fertilizers are soluble in water and can leach through the soil to contaminate underlying groundwater. Several factors affect the movement of chemicals in the soil and their likelihood of reaching groundwater. Consideration of these factors can minimize the threat to groundwater.

  • Adsorption is the binding of a chemical to the surfaces of soil particles and organic matter. Some chemicals are tightly adsorbed and do not easily leach from soils.
  • Persistence refers to the amount of time a chemical will stay in the environment before being broken down into nontoxic substances. The rate of breakdown is affected by sunlight, temperature, soil pH, moisture and microbial activity. Pesticide persistence is measured in terms of half-life which is the length of time needed for one-half of the amount applied to break down. Persistent chemicals break down slowly, increasing the chance for them to leach from the soil. Conversely, short-lived materials may be degraded before significant leaching occurs. Many pesticides are broken down by sunlight (photodegradation) and/or microbial action. Incorporation of pesticides into the soil reduces or eliminates photodegradation. As depth in the soil increases, there is less microbial degradation. Any practice that slows degradation increases persistence and the likelihood of leaching. Generally, foliar applied materials are more likely to break down before significant leaching occurs than those that are applied to the soil.

Pesticide Characteristics: Solubility is very important in the leaching of a pesticide. Chemicals that are highly soluble in water are easily leached as water moves downward. If practical, use the least soluble material at the lowest effective rate.

Soil Characteristics: Soil texture and organic matter greatly influence the movement of pesticides and fertilizers. Fine-textured soils and those with high amounts of organic matter are highly adsorptive, whereas sandy soils low in organic matter are not. Highly permeable soils with permeable underlying layers allow for rapid downward movement of water and dissolved chemicals. Know your soils and apply chemicals accordingly.

Water Table: High water tables are especially vulnerable to contamination because little time is required for chemicals to reach groundwater.

Fertilizers: Nitrogen (N) in the nitrate form is highly soluble, persistent and not adsorbed to soil particles. Nitrate N is not only leachable but is recognized as a health threat at concentrations above 10 ppm in drinking water. Infants are most susceptible to nitrate in drinking water. The ammonium form of N is adsorbed by soil particles and is less subject to leaching. However, ammonium N is converted to nitrate N in the soil, and this can occur quite rapidly. Note that urea, a common form of fertilizer N, is converted in the soil to ammonium and then to nitrate.

Appropriate management practices can reduce the likelihood of nitrate leaching. Any time large amounts of N are applied, significant leaching can occur if there is heavy rain. By applying some of the needed N at planting and the rest during one or more topdressings, you can avoid having large amounts of nitrate present at any one time. Not only can this reduce leaching, it can improve production by providing N during periods of greatest crop uptake.

Nitrogen left over in the soil at the end of the season is highly subject to leaching. A cover crop should be planted to take up unused N. The N will again become available for future crops as the cover crop breaks down.

Know Your Water

The pH of the water in your tank mix can sometimes affect the efficacy of pesticides. Insecticides, in particular, have a tendency to break down (hydrolyze) rapidly in alkaline water. Water pH can vary, depending on the source, from 5.0 to 9.5. Neutral water has a pH of 7.0, while alkaline water is higher than 7.0. If your water pH is much higher than 8.0, you may want to consider using an acidifying agent such as vinegar to lower the pH in the tank. Many of the pH-sensitive pesticides have acidifying agents in the formulation that moderate the effect of alkaline water. However, growers who suspect a pH problem should have their water tested. This can be done on the farm with pH test kits. Also, organic matter can tie up certain pesticides or clog nozzles.

Table 12. Approximate dilutions for small volumes of spray mixes.
Formulation 100 gallons 5 gallons 3 gallons 1 gallon
WETTABLE POWDER 5 pounds 15 teaspoons 9 tablespoons 3 tablespoons
4 pounds 13 teaspoons 8 tablespoons 3 teaspoons
3 pounds 10 teaspoons 6 tablespoons 2 tablespoons
2 pounds 8 teaspoons 4 tablespoons 4 teaspoons
1 pounds 3 teaspoons 2 tablespoons 2 teaspoons
1/2 pound 5 teaspoons 1 tablespoons 1 teaspoon
EMULSIFIABLE CONCENTRATE 5 gallons 1 quart 1 1/4 pints 13 tablespoons
4 gallons 1 1/2 pints 1 pint 10 tablespoons
3 gallons 1 1/4 pint 3/4 pint 1/4 pint
2 gallons 3/4 pint 1/2 pint 5 tablespoons
1 gallon 1/2 pint 8 tablespoons 3 tablespoons
1 quart 3 tablespoons 2 tablespoons 2 teaspoons
1 pint 5 teaspoons 1 tablespoon 1 teaspoon