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Cover crop mix Mike Werling

What can be done about algal blooms in the Midwest?

Here’s why you should care about environmental issues, even if they happen in another state.

Residents of Ohio have seen a recent problem with Lake Erie that continues to grow. This problem doesn’t just affect a small amount of people. At certain times, it affects over half a million people.

Lake Erie produces an algal bloom that jeopardizes water quality and wildlife health, and can cause economic losses for surrounding areas. Sandy Bihn, executive director for the Lake Erie Waterkeeper, says the main cause of algal blooms is rain events. But the story starts long before the first drop of rain hits the ground.

Algal bloom defined
As stormwater travels along roadways and farm ditches, it picks up things along the way, including oils, trash, sediment, and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. Sources of these nutrients include urban stormwater, municipal waste, and runoff from agricultural fields and feedlots.

These nutrients cause algae to grow. Algae is naturally occurring, but add in sunlight, high temperatures and stable waters, and algae take off like wildfire, turning the blue waters green, experts say.

Where does rain come into play? “2016 was the perfect year to answer that question,” Bihn says. “We now know that the bloom is caused by runoff.”

Bihn’s organization has the goal of protecting, improving and educating citizens about Lake Erie. The algal bloom is one of the largest threats to Lake Erie.

The size of algal blooms depends upon the amount of rainfall each summer or fall. The worst algal bloom in Lake Erie broke out in August 2014, causing the state to shut down drinking water for Toledo.

The outburst of algal blooms in Lake Erie is something not only Ohio residents should pay attention to, but residents of Indiana, as well.

Mike Werling, Decatur, Ind., farms in the Maumee watershed, which drains to Lake Erie. His property runs right up to the St. Mary’s River. Nutrients that leave his farm could be part of an algal bloom in Lake Erie, if it weren’t for his best management practices that keep most nutrients on the farm. Stricter regulation is being proposed for Ohio farmers. Could it come across the state line?

Can regulations help?
The entire state of Ohio has been impacted by algal blooms. From the population of Toledo being cut off from drinking water to tourists not being able to participate in their favorite recreational water activities, the algal bloom has wreaked havoc. Ohio lawmakers have taken steps to improve water quality in Lake Erie by implementing Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 150.

S.B. 1 went into effect July 1, 2015. It states that people can’t apply fertilizer or manure to frozen or snow-covered ground when the top 2 inches of soil are saturated, or when the forecast has a 50% chance of precipitation exceeding 1 inch (rain-equivalent) in a 12-hour period.

The bill runs on a complaint-driven process, and farmers can be fined up to $10,000. This prevents excess nutrients from leaving farm fields and entering waterways through stormwater.

S.B. 1 also requires wastewater treatment plants to have phosphorus-monitoring systems in place by December 2016, and to have studies completed by December 2017 that analyze the cost and feasibility of reducing phosphorus discharge to under 1 milligram per liter.

Ohio S.B. 150 requires all people who apply commercial fertilizer to 50 or more acres to be certified. The Ohio Department of Agriculture says it will conduct random, recorded audits to make sure people are certified. If they’re not, they also face fines and could be potentially charged with a misdemeanor offense.

In addition to legislation, Ohio is supposed to have a Domestic Action Plan that will lay out the framework to reduce phosphorus runoff by 40% by 2025 in the Lake Erie basin. The plan will include reductions for agricultural and urban sources, and is due in May 2017.

Though stricter regulations haven’t been imposed on Indiana farmers, farmers are working in partnership with many different organizations to implement practices that have water quality benefits. Katie Fagan, a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Tippecanoe County, works with these types of farmers every day.

What farmers can do
“Most farmers that come to us already have an idea of what they want to implement,” Fagan says. “We help soil and water conservation districts put on field days and provide education, but most of the time the farmers are seeking us out for technical assistance. They want to implement these practices.”

Fagan says cover crops are the most popular practice being implemented right now. But she also works to implement filter strips, grassed waterways, wildlife planting and nutrient management plans.

Though some farmers are concerned with their water quality, it’s not usually at the top of the list, she observes. Farming is a business, and making money is important. Implementing practices that are profitable is a big deal, and water quality benefits are a bonus.

“Farmers want long-term stability,” Fagan says. “If they put in a cover crop, it most likely isn’t primarily for water quality benefit. They’re looking at the soil health and reduction in nitrogen loss.”

Those benefits are real. Just ask Mike Werling. He’s used cover crops since the 1990s. “I have reduced my nitrogen application, and my organic matter has risen 1.5%,” he says.” I currently use a 13-way mix of species when I seed cover crops.”

Werling doesn’t only use cover crops. He also practices 100% no-till and has implemented two-stage ditches. He recently had a new grassed waterway installed.

He also recently installed a drainage water management structure. “The results are showing reduced nutrient levels in the drainage water leaving the farm,” Werling says.

Making practices affordable and applicable for farmers like Werling to implement is a large part of Fagan’s job. She helps farmers apply for funding through various sources. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds new practices for farmers to implement, while the Conservation Stewardship Program provides funding for existing practices and additional enhancements, she notes.

When an agricultural producer signs a contract for these programs, he or she receives funding, but are required to use the practices for a set amount of time.

As for Werling, he believes regulation will come about if improvements aren’t made. But for now, he’s enjoying teaching other farmers about his best management practices.

Baugh and Hoffa are seniors in ag communication at Purdue University.

 

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