Arkansas scientist hopes to improve water quality from nutrient runoff

Nutrient runoff from various agricultural operations remains a hot-button topic for water stake holders. Producers hope to preserve the ability to fertilize crops and dispose of animal waste in an efficient and responsible manner of their choosing, while downstream landowners, outdoorsmen, and other stakeholders seek to preserve the environment from overexposure to nutrients.

Shannon Speir, assistant professor of water quality at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, said partnerships with farmers allow her to efficiently conduct research while considering those farmers’ needs.

“It is about realizing that you are on the same playing field and on the same team,” Speir said. “I think that that really ends up getting the most holistic and beneficial product or outcome of the collaboration.”

Speir joined the Experiment Station, the research arm of the University of Arkansas, in early August. She works within the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental sciences, where she earned her master’s degree in 2016.

In addition to investigating how to maintain nutrients on the landscape and out of streams and rivers, she will teach courses through the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

Eventually, she also plans to work with local entities to develop community outreach projects, providing education on septic systems and other aspects of water quality.

For her first research project, she will begin a pilot study on three streams, Richland Creek, Brush Creek and Roberts Creek in the Beaver Lake watershed in September.

“A lot of the issues here in northwest Arkansas are concerns around drinking water problems,” Speir said. “Especially with the Beaver Lake watershed and the reservoir.”

The primary source of freshwater in northwest Arkansas is Beaver Lake, which is “…crucial to meeting Northwest Arkansas’s increasing demands for abundant high-quality water.”

The study will help determine the location for the first Arkansas Discovery Watershed as part of the Arkansas Discovery Farms Program. The Arkansas Discovery Farms Program, administered by the Division of Agriculture, centers on engaging farmers in the conservation process by conducting research on conservation practices on farmers’ fields.

Speir also researched watersheds for her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Notre Dame. She wanted to reveal the effect of conservation on multiple farms within the watershed and see how it impacted water quality leaving the drainage area. To determine the quality of water, she measured nitrogen and phosphorus levels.

Speir was not always involved in the agricultural side of water conservation. As an undergraduate student at Texas Christian University, she focused on mercury contamination and how mercury moves from water bodies into the terrestrial food web. “I knew that when I was going to grad school, that I wanted to stick with this contamination issue, but I didn’t know where it was going to take me,” Speir said.

Jeff Edwards, department head of crop, soil and environmental sciences, said Speir’s expertise and experience will strengthen the Division of Agriculture’s research portfolio in water quality and management.

“The water issues our stakeholders are facing are not going away, and we are very fortunate to hire someone with Dr. Speir’s diverse research experience,” Edwards said. “The issues we are facing in the area of water quality are not specific to one discipline, and Dr. Speir’s collaboration-focused approach is what we need to help provide solutions for Arkansans.” Speir earned her bachelor’s degrees in biology and Spanish from Texas Christian University in 2014, her master’s degree in crop, soil and environmental sciences from the University of
Arkansas in 2016 and her Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Notre Dame in 2021.

“I think one of the most interesting things is to be able to work with farmers,” Speir said. “And I think that brings a whole other side of this.”

As a researcher, “you get to really build these relationships and see what your work is doing on the ground. It kind of ties back to that societal benefit component that I am really passionate about.”

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