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This may look like a Martian lander, but it actually samples water

This may look like a Martian lander, but it actually samples water
Weird contraption in stream is actually a sophisticated water sampling device which collects water data 24/7.

If you haven't heard of the creature, the extra-terrestial, called ET, of movie fame several years ago, ask your kids. They probably can fill in the details. The theme of that movie was ET's struggles to return home to his planet, and the catch phrase became "ET, phone home!"

Related: Historic water quality lawsuit on tap in Iowa

Strange sight: You don't see one of these contraptions every day. It's collecting data on water quality in a stream in Hendricks County.

The strange contraption pictured here with pipes extending like lunar landing pad arms into the creek, powered by a solar panel atop the entire structure, isn't out of a science fiction movie. It's not cheap either. It's a water sampler that can collect data and send it to a collection point that can put data online.  It doesn't "phone home," but it does send information to computers.

This sampler is located in a stream in Hendricks County near Brownsburg. Mike Starkey and Jack Maloney, two no-tillers who also believe in cover corps, farm land in the watershed feeding this creek.

The sampler, installed with assistance from the U.S. Geological Survey, collects data downstream from Starkey and Maloney's fields. Another "lunar lander" collects data upstream, as the stream reaches their property lines from points above them.

Jared Chew, district conservationist in Hendricks County for the Natural Resources Conservation Services, says this edge-of-field-monitoring program is designed to determine if no-till, cover crops and more precise fertilizer practices lessen the amount of runoff coming out of tile lines and off the field.

Since data has only been collected since spring, it's premature to draw conclusions, Chew notes. However, anecdotal evidence points to less nitrogen coming out of the tile lines from Starkey's fields than entering the stream from other sources.

Related: Water quality on the farm: Staying ahead of the regulatory curve

This project will continue for several years, Chew says. Eventually, Starkey will compare his preferred fertilization methods in a field on one side of the stream against fertilizer recommendations from the Tri-State Fertilizer Guide, prepared by Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State Universities, on the other side. 

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