Otto Doering began a workshop on improving water quality by telling those assembled that it is easily one of the harder problems to solve. There are simple problems that can be solved with the scientific method, he says, and then there are what academia calls 'wicked' problems.
"Reducing nitrates in the gulf and solving other environmental issues is definitely a wicked problem," the Purdue University Extension ag professor says. "Compared to going to the moon, it is much more difficult. Going to the moon required solving problems that could be solved with the scientific method that scientists and engineers understand. As long as you don't believe the landing was filmed in Hollywood somewhere, we solved the problem of how to do it, went to the moon and came home."
The difference is that with environmental problems, you can do things to make things better, or things can get worse, but you never totally solve the problem. Soil erosion and nutrients flowing into water from farm fields never drop totally to zero, no matter what you do.
In Lake Erie the problem is high phosphate levels and algal blooms. In the Gulf of Mexico it's about high nitrate levels that trigger events that lead to dead zones in the Gulf at certain times of the year. There is no one cause, and no one solution to either of these problems, or to a host of other problems related to the environment.
The workshop Doering kicked off was a meeting of researchers from different universities doing water quality research within Indiana, plus discussion with those soil conservation partners, including Purdue University, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, which houses the Division of Soil Conservation.
The objective was to learn more about what each other was doing and what information still needed to be collected.
One step at a time is the way you attack 'wicked' problems and make them better, Doering concludes