Because of a deadline extension, farmers in the three county Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region of Texas are being encouraged to take advantage of the cost free soil sampling program underway now and extended through the end of March.

“This is a great opportunity for folks to collect soil samples and have them submitted to the Texas A&M lab to determine nutrient content. Testing might indicate adequate nutrients already are present in the sample, resulting in a cost savings if less fertilizer is required,” reports Brad Cowan, Texas AgriLife Extension agent for agricultural and natural resources in Hidalgo County. “Cutting production costs in an uncertain year like this one could be a real benefit.”

The no cost soil testing program, offered in the RGV since 1991, is being made available through a grant from the Clean Water Act provided by the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The program is administered through the Texas Water Resources Institute and managed by Texas A&M Extension Service.

“The grant was made possible in an effort to help clean up the Arroyo Colorado watershed to improve water quality of the waterway,” Cowan added.

In recent years, water testing up and down the 90 miles of the Arroyo beginning near Mission and snaking down the Valley to the Laguna Madre south of Harlingen near the Cameron-Willacy county line have indicated salinity concentrations typically exceed the limits considered desirable for human consumption as well as those acceptable for irrigation of crops. Tests have also discovered low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels, which can be a hazard to fish populations, and also revealed low levels of mercury and other contaminants.

The watershed of the Arroyo Colorado is approximately 706 square miles bounded on the west and south by the drainage divide to the Rio Grande, on the north by the drainage divide to the North Floodway and on the east side by the Lower Laguna Madre. It serves as the major drainage way for approximately two dozen cities in the area.

Agriculture is the primary land use, with more than half of the area cultivated and almost 300,000 acres in the three counties irrigated for cotton, citrus, vegetables, grain sorghum, corn and sugar cane production. The watershed is sustained by runoff and return flows from these areas as well as urban wastewater discharges, irrigation and other agricultural return flows, stormwater runoff and base flows from groundwater, which collectively have added to the problems of the Arroyo.

“We hear a great deal about how agriculture is responsible for water quality problems in this region, and while problems associated with runoffs are certainly a concern and something which the agriculture sector is constantly working to improve, the truth is there are a number of contributing sources, many reasons why water quality of the Arroyo requires attention,” Cowan explains. “We have been extremely active in educational programs to help all those involved in agriculture to understand the risks and to take action at every opportunity to do our part to help clean up the environment.”

Cowan says farmers and ranchers traditionally are the best land stewards because their farms and their crops depend on environmental responsibility.

“A big part of the no-cost soil testing program is to help producers determine the level of nutrients in the soil so that they will respond only when nutrient levels, for example, test very low. In a field, for example, where various crops are rotated, like vegetable crops, we often find nitrogen levels are adequate without additional treatment. This helps protect the environment and has the added benefit of helping producers lower production costs,” he said.

Over the course of the project, Texas AgriLife Extension has conducted multiple training programs and educational events focusing on everything from crop production to rainwater harvesting. However, extension’s main focus was on nutrient management and implementing best management practices to reduce the potential for nonpoint source pollution from agriculture.

Overall, the extension service has reached 6,200-plus individuals through education efforts, with over 3,600 of those attending outreach programs directly meeting the objectives of the project. Crop production training provided information on enhancing production of cotton, sorghum, sugar cane, citrus and vegetables while reducing associated environmental impacts. Multi-county Pesticide Applicator Safety Training and Continuing Education programs were also held on a regular basis as one of the objectives of the program.

Cowan says the agricultural community across the watershed is making substantial progress in meeting the goals outlined in the Arroyo Colorado Water Project Plan.

For soil testing, growers can pick up soil sample bags and forms from AgriLife Extension offices in Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo counties and from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Weslaco.