Partnerships critical in battle to stop toxic sliming of Lake Erie

CLEVELAND, OHIO – An aggressive partnership is needed to battle the harmful algal blooms, or HABs, that have plagued Lake Erie in recent years and are a growing problem on Ohio’s inland waters, said Executive Director Jack Fisher of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

To respond to the crisis, a year ago the OFBF joined stakeholders to create Healthy Water Ohio. Two of the major partners are The Nature Conservancy and Ohio State University’s College of Food, Airicultural and Environmental Sciences. Their officials joined Fisher this week to outline why a group approach is critical in managing the waters of Lake Erie, considered Ohio’s most important resource.

Agricultural runoff has been blamed for the abundance of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie that triggers the blooms, and Fisher admitted Ohio’s farmers need to do more to stop the pollution from fertilizer and manure spread on farm fields.

“We’ve had three major meetings with farmers (in the Maumee Bay watershed), and about 80 percent of the farmers agreed they could do a better job of reducing phosphorus runoff,” said Fisher. “Legislation will soon require those who apply fertilizer to be certified, and farmers must be responsible in the way they handle manure (from their livestock).”

Bruce McPheron, OSU’s dean of agricultural administration, says education is critical. It is a reason why OSU is in charge of the certification program. But all Ohioans need to know more, he said.

“About one of every seven Ohioans is in the business of agriculture,” said McPheron. “But only one of six Ohioans knows the source of their food.”

Phosphorus and nitrogen are causing the Lake Erie blooms, said McPheron. Even though less fertilizer is being put on the soil than 25 years ago, studies show there is more phosphorus in the watershed today. Tiling farm fields to keep them well-drained can boost crop yields by 25 percent to 30 percent, but the increased tiling also allows more phosphorus to escape.

A two-year study of 30 farm fields found 95 percent of the phosphorus runoff came after one torrential rainstorm, said McPheron. A single farmer was responsible for much of the problem, applying fertilizer just before a big rain effect. It was a costly move, with the farmer losing an expensive application of fertilizer and undoubtedly contributing to the toxic blue-green algal blooms.

OSU introduced the Field to Faucet initiative in September to develop end-to-end solutions to water quality issues and the HABs.

“Toledo was the wake-up call,” said McPheron, referring to the drinking water ban there in late summer after toxic Microcystin was found in finished water after thick HABs surround the city’s water intake on Lake Erie.

OSU is “well positioned to lead the way in providing answers, but we can’t tackle this alone,” he said.

McPheron earmarked $1 million for the water quality initiative, and in an unusual move, the OFBF also invested $1 million. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced state and federal agencies will get $12 million to deal with agricultural issues, including the fertilizer and manure runoff that contributes to the HABs in Lake Erie.

The initial goal is a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie.

“We have to be selective right now, and focus on the most effective ways to meet those reduction levels,” said Executive Director Josh Knights of The Nature Conservancy. “We want the most bang for the buck, and we believe nature should be a part of the solution.

“We have to improve stream flow and allow the settling of (phosphorus-laden) sediment. We need 1 percent to 3 percent of tillable land in the watershed to return to wetlands, which can bring reductions in nutrients,” said Knights.

“Farmers need to subscribe to the 4R Certification Program, which mandates the right fertilizer sources, the right rate of fertilizer, the right time to apply it and fertilizing in just the right places.”

Technology is already providing a major assist. Satellites are keeping a daily eye on Lake Erie HABs throughout the year, while the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University monitors phosphorus levels around Ohio, focusing on the Maumee River watershed. Drones are already being used to monitor Ohio’s farm fields.

“We’re not going to solve this problem overnight,” said Fisher. “While Toledo is our wake-up call, it is a similar crisis to the Cuyahoga River burning (in 1969). It took 15 to 20 years to cure those problems. The HABs are not going to be a quick fix.”


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