U.S. offers farms $41M more to curb lake algae

[USA] Another $41 million is being made available over three years to help farmers reduce algae-forming runoff into western Lake Erie.

An announcement made Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service was delivered at Maumee Bay State Park on the same morning countless fields near the park’s convention center had standing water after being saturated by one of this spring’s heaviest thunderstorms to date.

Service chief Jason Weller, who came in from the agency’s national headquarters to make the announcement, told 130 people attending the event that western Lake Erie farmers impress Washington by how they embrace best farming practices.

According to results of a new report that was released Monday in conjunction with the announcement, 99 percent of western Lake Erie farms in northwest Ohio, northeast Indiana, and southeast Michigan have adopted at least one water-conservation measure over the years.

Those measures can include anything from wiser use of water to creating wider swaths of land between farms and streams to serve as buffers, most of which carry a dual incentive of being a cost-saving measure to the farmer.

But Mr. Weller told The Blade after his presentation that the high acceptance rate is rare. Similar-sized watersheds in other parts of the country have acceptance rates in the high 80th or low 90th percentiles, he said.

The additional $41 million is being made available through 2018 and brings the total NRCS investment in this region to $77 million over that period, more than twice previously budgeted.

Much of the money will be made available as grants in which farmers can get 50 to 75 percent of water-conservation projects on their fields paid by the NRCS, Mr. Weller said. Those grants are already available and farmers can begin applying, leaders said.

Those projects include cover crops, buffer strips, more no-till farming, better crop rotation, drainage tile structures, two-stage ditches, and new technology, such as underground “bioreactors,” in which wood mulch acting as underground filters can absorb up to 80 percent of phosphorus and nitrogen before it gets into streams, he said.

In the latter, runoff flowing through drainage tiles becomes partially treated as it flows through an underground concrete tank that contains the mulch.

Following the announcement, farmers, environmentalists, fishermen, business groups, and public officials spent the afternoon poring over an updated NRCS report which quantifies how much western Lake Erie farmers embrace water-conservation measures.

About 1,000 producers of livestock and crops were interviewed, the first update since 2006.

Results show western Lake Erie farmers reduced sediment loss by half between 2006 and 2012.

“They’re making good progress,” Mr. Weller said. “There are a lot of great programs being delivered. But we have a long way to go.”

The status report and additional $41 million for better farming practices come a week after a University of Michigan report concluded the call for a 40 percent reduction in western Lake Erie phosphorus and nitrogen releases — promoted by state and federal governments to reduce algae — is achievable, but only if farmers become more aggressive at controlling runoff.

It drew criticism from Ohio’s corn and wheat lobby, which called the UM study an “unrealistic, one-size-fits-all approach” that could lead to more regulations.

The agricultural industry has resisted efforts to have the western Lake Erie watershed declared impaired or distressed by the federal government, because that would create more regulation.

Mr. Weller said Monday that voluntary actions are working.

“What we’re talking about, ultimately, is taking the level of stewardship to a higher level,” he said.

The NRCS promotes a four-pronged strategy for nutrients: avoid, control, trap, and manage, Mr. Weller said.

The federal investment in agriculture is good for water quality for another reason: Land taken out of production often ends up being paved and developed, he said.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) spoke about the need for striking a balance between farming and water quality, opening her remarks with this sentence: “There is a point in which people perish and I think we are at this in western Lake Erie.”

Earth’s population has doubled since the 1960s and is expected to double again this century, putting more pressure on today’s farmers to produce on less land than their predecessors.

“We’re the test tube for how we do this right,” Miss Kaptur said. “The world is going to be looking up to us, at least the small percentage that produces food.”

Failing to succeed in balancing food production and water quality will result in “a very difficult 21st century,” she said.

“Population growth and the sheer numbers of people who need to be fed demand that we find solutions,” Miss Kaptur said.

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson agreed.

“We have a responsibility to not only ourselves, but the next generation,” Ms. Hicks-Hudson said.

 

Photo: Jason Weller, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, speaking about the $41 million investment of the NRCS for fiscal year 2016-2018. THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER

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