The Environmental Working Group issued a report in the early 1990s with shock value. It included Fort Wayne, Ind., on a list of U.S. cities where atrazine was above recommended levels in drinking water. The report was a call to arms for ag leaders.
Supervisors and employees with the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District heard the call, notes Greg Lake, a farmer and longtime SWCD employee. They organized others and started a water-monitoring program, which continues today.
Twenty-eight streams are monitored weekly during the growing season. Streams and collection points were selected based on where staff expected problems.
“Sampling started in the St. Joseph River watershed in 1995,” explains Sharon Partridge, with the Allen County SWCD and Maumee Watershed Alliance. Fort Wayne’s drinking water comes from the St. Joseph River and is processed through the Fort Wayne Water Filtration Plant.
“We expanded monitoring to the St. Mary’s River and upper Maumee River watersheds, and later to the Auglaize watershed,” she continues.
Partridge estimates over $100,000 in staff time and materials among cooperating groups is devoted to this water-monitoring project annually. Funding comes from various sources, including Allen County through the Allen County SWCD, the Natural Resources Conservation Service through various grants, Fort Wayne city utilities and Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Three Allen County SWCD employees — Brooke Rudicel, Joelle Beals and Courtney Scherer — are responsible for actual sample collections each week. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the U.S. Geological Survey are also key partners with the Allen County SWCD in this project.
Findings so far
Early on, during most of the year, atrazine wasn’t detected at high levels in streams. Bob Gillespie, a retired professor with Purdue Fort Wayne and member of both the Maumee Watershed Alliance and the St. Joseph River Initiative, addresses current findings.
“If we’re going to find atrazine in stream monitoring, it’s around application time on farmland and after rain events,” he explains. “Levels of atrazine today rarely exceed EPA guidelines for drinking water.”
He adds that on those rare occasions when atrazine tests above the guideline, water can be treated with charcoal to achieve levels below the guideline before it is piped to homes.
Perhaps the biggest issue today is E. coli bacteria, associated with fecal matter, Partridge notes. Levels may exceed standards in monitoring after rain events. “It’s not easy to track to the source,” she says. “Wildlife and geese contribute to it, and livestock can contribute. We believe faulty septic systems are also a major contributor.”
In fact, estimates run as high as 50% for septic systems that are failing or in disrepair in the watershed areas.
Mike Werling, an Adams County, Ind., no-till farmer, consults for the Allen County SWCD and is also a member of the Maumee Watershed Alliance. In particular, he looks for ways farmers and landowners can adapt practices that will result in lower levels of phosphorus and nitrates in streams. In parts of the watershed in the project, agriculture makes up nearly 85% of the land use area.
“We continue working with farmers, encouraging them to use best management practices,” he says. “That includes shifting to no-till and adopting cover crops.”
Gillespie and others have developed a website to see data from the project. You can create an account and access data.