Beaver Creek Water Quality Study

Beginning in 1991, John Charles Wilson (who later became President of Agricenter International) spearheaded the $8.5 million, five-year Beaver Creek Water Quality Study within the 95,000 acre/5-county watershed in West Tennessee.  

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History of the Study

John Charles Wilson wanted to know the true impact agriculture had on water quality.  He approached the US Geological Survey (USGS) and asked them for assistance with a study, but without matching funds it would not go far.  A preliminary assessment of the Beaver Creek Watershed was conducted by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and indicated that agricultural activity was degrading water quality in some form.  Beaver Creek Watershed then qualified for educational, technical, and financial assistance to improve water quality as it was a priority watershed in TN Section 319 nonpoint source program.  With financing eventually coming from the state legislature, Wilson’s drive turned into the largest voluntary multi-agency research project in the state of Tennessee at that time. 

John Charles and the surrounding farmers joined together at the grassroots level to determine agriculture’s effect on the role agriculture plays in contributing to nonpoint source pollution through water quality and soil erosion.  Another objective was to develop the soil sampling method to measure the rate and distance of agrichemical movement through the soil profile.  Researchers spent the first year of the study designing a monitoring system which improved the accuracy of water sampling techniques.  Wilson worked with a coalition of state and federal agencies, including USGS, TDEC, TN Department of Agriculture, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Water Environment Federation, TN Valley Authority (TVA), University of Tennessee, University of Memphis, and the University Extension Service on conservation issues in this study. 

Results of the Study

The Beaver Creek Water Quality Study showed the suspended sediment from soil erosion was the major water quality problem as the agrichemicals bonded to the soil and washed away before decaying.  The results of the study showed that no-till farming fortunately did not enhance movement of agrichemicals and did not increase contamination of ground water plus it had the added benefit of soil conservation.  At one site, conventional farming produced 70,000 mg/L concentration of suspended sediment and after no-till best management practices were put in place it was no more than 7,000 mg/L.  Similarly, soil loss with conventional farming was 22 tons/acre and with no-till it was 2 tons/acre. 

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By end of the study, 75% of the producers in the watershed adopted the no-till farming practice.  John Charles Wilson and others planted vegetation along stream banks, used filter strips, debris basin and other low impact development techniques still used today to mitigate stormwater runoff from the fields.  He and the extension service together hosted farm visits, demonstrations, and two field days with over 650 people in attendance to learn of the results.  There were many examples of how increased yields and environmental improvement could actually happen together.  The study received publicity in Mid-American Farmer, Delta Farm Press, National Conservation Tillage, Progressive Farmer, local newspapers and TV, and was used as an example in the Farm Bureau national policy.  Through research and water quality monitoring in the Beaver Creek Watershed, Wilson proved that farmers could dramatically reduce soil loss and effectively protect streams and thus water quality with best management practices and no-till farming.  Wilson’s leadership in this project launched the work that then served as a national model for the study of water quality from agricultural runoff. 

Wilson received the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region IV Water Quality Award for the Beaver Creek Study in 1994.  He was also named the USGS Honorary Project Coordinator for Beaver Creek Hydrologic Unit Area from 1989 to 1995.

For more detailed information, please contact the Shelby County Natural Resource Conservation Services office by clicking here.