A tried-and-true solution to nutrient pollution, then and now

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From cattle to commerce, mills to malls, and farmlands to frack pads, every watershed has historically supported a large variety of ever-changing land uses, determined by the availability and management of nearby natural resources.

Since their formation by the Ohio General Assembly in 1941, Ohio’s 88 Soil and Water Conservation Districts have been at the forefront of protecting and managing our soil, water and related natural resources.

Though the catastrophic Dust Bowl served as a catalyst for soil and water conservation in America, our conservation districts’ efforts have also been ever-changing. As dreadfully surreal as the sights and stories of the Dust Bowl, now the recent explosion of nutrients in our fresh waters brings its own tale of troubling and toxic environmental degradation, beyond our imaginations or full comprehension.

Changing

Again our land use has changed, impacting water quality in a way that cannot be ignored.

Today the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Districts are spearheading new efforts to reduce excess nitrogen and phosphorus levels in our streams, rivers and lakes. According to the Ohio EPA, approximately 48 percent of Ohio’s watersheds are degraded by nutrient enrichment issues. These excessive nutrients come from many different sources, including agriculture, lawn fertilizers, wastewater overflows, storm water runoff and leaking septics — and when nutrients find favorable conditions, they can create harmful algal blooms.

By the summer of 2010, conditions were so favorable in the heartland that HABs were rapidly emerging in unprecedented numbers, spreading fear, confusion and advisory postings across the state.

Phosphorus funnel

With 22,720 square miles (58,845 sq. km) of land draining directly into Lake Erie, Ohio’s freshwater gem is the bulls-eye of this nutrient-loading storm. As one of the most populated Great Lakes, its shallow depths, warm temperatures and surrounding agricultural, industrial and urban impacts add to its vulnerability to sedimentation and pollution.

Phosphorus loading is primarily affecting the western basin of Lake Erie, from the Maumee and Sandusky River watersheds, but levels are also increasing from northeastern watersheds such as the Cuyahoga and Grand Rivers.

Lake Erie’s critical issues include sedimentation, nutrient enrichment, hypolimnetic deoxygenation (dead zones) and climate change. Interlinked and interrelated, we can easily see the connection of sediment loads carrying nutrients causing algal explosions, which in turn cause dead zones, all impacted by the changing temperatures and precipitation surges of a changing climate.

As overwhelming as these challenges may seem, Ohioans are once again heeding the call to reclaim this great lake and its invaluable freshwater tributaries.

More trees, please

The Geauga SWCD is collaborating with other northeast Ohio SWCDs to promote the use of native trees and plants for nutrient reduction, storm water management and improved water quality throughout Ohio’s farmlands and neighborhoods.

The use of vegetative cover as a best management practice is firmly rooted in our nation’s conservation efforts. Perhaps the most legendary reforestation feat occurred between 1933 and 1942, when the Civilian Conservation Corps, also known as Roosevelt’s “Tree Army,” renewed the nation’s decimated forests and eroded landscapes by planting an estimated three billion trees.

While trees have always been touted for their ability to improve air quality, wildlife habitat, property value and even community health, there’s a growing consensus about their successful ability to clean water. To date, plants and trees remain the most effective means of capturing and filtering runoff and sediment, therefore improving water quality and watershed health.

Many municipalities challenged with failing infrastructures and dwindling funds are going “back to their roots,” literally, by utilizing and prioritizing trees and plants in planning and storm water management. It is estimated that a northern red oak with a diameter of 30 inches has the capacity to intercept 4,741 gallons of storm water runoff in one year. Similarly, a rain garden can reduce storm water runoff.

The important connection between forests and storm water runoff in urbanized areas has been proven in studies nationwide, promoting a more comprehensive watershed approach to improve water quality. Simply stated, because of their ability to reduce storm water volume, retain sediments and reduce pollutant loads, trees and plants are cheap, effective and competitive storm water BMPs, even in a concrete world.

Trees provide millions of dollars in environmental, economical and aesthetic benefits. Moreover, trees and plants reduce and improve storm water runoff in the following ways:

They capture and store rainfall and release water into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration.

Their roots stabilize banks and take up nutrients and pollutants from the soil and water.

Leaf litter builds healthy soil, increases soil’s water-holding capacity, helps replenish groundwater and maintains a stream flow during dry periods.

Trees and plants decrease flooding and erosion downstream by slowing down and temporarily storing runoff.

Tree canopies decrease the impact of heavy rainfall, decrease water temperatures through shading and increase biodiversity.

In your backyard

No matter where we live, we are “communities connected by water,” — part of something greater and connected to our water resources. When we consider the cost associated with cleaning up Lake Erie and Ohio’s surface waters, we need to also consider the additional benefits and values that will be obtained.

As one of the least expensive ways to reduce nutrients and sediment entering our waters, the planting of trees and vegetation continues to be a worthwhile investment in our communities.

The Geauga SWCD encourages you to contact your county SWCD for information regarding an annual tree sale, or participate in Geauga SWCD’s tree sale April 12-13. Visit www.geaugaswcd.com or call 440-834-1122 for more information.

Planting trees and plants is a stewardship practice that everyone can do to improve water quality now and for years, and land uses, to come.

About the Author

Gail Prunty is the education/communications specialist for the Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District. More Stories by Gail Prunty

One Comment

  1. Don says:

    Gail – nice article summarizing the multiple ecosystem benefits of trees (including the historical perspective)! A follow-up article would be great, highlighting some of the technical research you have found that provides specific nutrient reduction effectiveness of forests and trees (ideally for some key species such as oak). Like the National Tree Benefits Calculator (which doesn’t provide nutrient numbers), some indications of the increase in nutrient removal over time as trees grow is most needed. Also, if you have found anything that looks at “forest” ecosystem benefits v. individual trees (again, the NTBC), many practitioners would welcome that information. Best regards.

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