Researchers: More land management tactics needed to reduce algae

[USA] Last in a series examining the health of Lake Erie water and its related impact on area communities and beyond.

The Western Lake Erie Basin includes 5.2 million acres of agricultural land, and every bit of it will likely have to undergo some changes to win the fight against harmful algal blooms.

Meeting a 40-percent reduction in phosphorus by 2025 under only existing methods and programs would take an unachievable amount of funding, said Amy Brennan, Lake Erie conservation director at The Nature Conservancy.

“This is going to be tough. This is a huge lift,” she said.

“This really did highlight that we need to be doing this work everywhere.”

Brennan and The Nature Conservancy worked on a conservation effects assessment project to gauge the effectiveness of ways farmers are currently trying to minimize runoff, like cover crops, buffers and filter strips.

It stated that 70 percent of the land in the watershed is used for agriculture, and that farm fertilizer and manure are responsible for 85 percent of phosphorus that enters Lake Erie through the Maumee River. That certainly doesn’t mean agriculture is solely responsible, but it does make it a sensible target in order to have a quick impact.

That will require changes to “the way farmers do business,” Brennan added, something they’re already working on.

“Farmers do this all the time. They way they farmed 40 years ago looks nothing like the way they farmed today.”

Brennan said the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has been hugely successful in connecting farmers with nutrient retailers who help with effective fertilizer management.

It encourages farmers to apply the right fertilizer and the right rate, time and place. The program started here and is now spreading to surrounding states because it’s been so well received, Brennan said.

“This program has really taken off because I think it makes sense for the farmers’ bottom line,” she said.

“This is going to be not just a Lake Erie thing.”

While subsurface phosphorus application can be “very effective,” phosphorus loading is still too high in 53 percent of watersheds The Nature Conservancy studied, Brennan said.

Applying only those current land and erosion control and nutrient management methods to achieve the 40-percent reduction would require annual funding to the tune of $263 million.

“We’re never going to have that kind of funding,” so “across the board” reductions of phosphorus will be necessary, Brennan said, adding that it will require the support of public-private partnerships.
“We can’t do the status quo of what we’ve been doing,” said Christopher Winslow, interim director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. “That’s the message from that.”

Though a daunting challenge, meeting it would soon show tangible benefits in the reduction of harmful algal blooms.

“If you can get to that” 40-percent phosphorus reduction, Winslow said, “you’re going to see response in the lake very, very quickly.”


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