NRCS: Great Lakes conservation is working

WOOSTER, Ohio — Conservation efforts to reduce sedimentation and fertilizer runoff in the Great Lakes region is making a significant difference, the chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service said Oct. 13.

Chief Dave White made the announcement on the heels of a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, which shows erosion-control and nutrient-management practices on cultivated cropland are reducing losses of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous from farm fields and decreasing the movement of these materials to the Great Lakes and their waterways.

The study shows farmers’ conservation practices have resulted in a 50 percent decline in sediment entering rivers and streams, along with 36 and 37 percent declines, respectively, in phosphorus and nitrogen loading.

“The conservation works,” he said, “(but) we also know that more needs to be done.”

Large area

White said there are about 2.8 million acres that have a high level of treatment need, and another 5 million in moderate need of treatment.

The study area covers nearly 174,000 square miles — the entire U.S. side of the Great Lakes Region — including nearly all of Michigan and parts of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

It’s based on data obtained through a survey of farming and conservation practices conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service from 2003 to 2006. More than 1,400 sample points were used to provide the basis for estimating soil conditions throughout the region.

“The Administration appreciates the actions of every farmer who is stepping up to implement conservation practices, protect vital farmlands and strengthen local economies,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in a released statement. “At the same time, we also see opportunities for even further progress.”

Agricultural runoff, from manure and fertilizer, has long been one suspected source of dangerous increases in phosphorous levels in Great Lakes water systems, which has lead to the growth of harmful algal blooms. Human and municipal waste also is believed to be a contributor.

Effective conservation

White said the most effective conservation practices have involved “systems of conservation” directed toward specific target regions, which works better than single, independent projects.

Without the current conservation in place, he figures sedimentation would be about double what it currently is, and the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen reaching water systems would be much greater.

He said the NRCS attack plan has three components: avoid, control and trap.

Farmers and other land owners help “avoid” these issues by only applying fertilizer where it is needed, and under the proper conditions. He credited farmers for using high-tech equipment that reads the chlorophyll level in plants, and deposits a variable rate of fertilizer depending on plant and soil needs.

Farmers can “control” the issues by using conservation tillage methods and terraces. And they can “trap” sedimentation and nutrient runoff by using tools such as buffers and wetlands at the edges of fields.

Conservation efforts are mostly voluntary at this point, and White said farmers have done well to adopt new practices and responsibilities in caring for their soil.

“Most farmers want to do this,” he said. “The soil is their factory, it’s where they make their living … they want to protect that and leave in better shape for the next generation.”

Conservation funding

Several government programs currently provide financial incentives for conservation, but how much will be funded through the 2012 farm bill is unclear. White said he’s confident in the congressional leaders putting together the farm bill, but said the farm bill will most likely be impacted by federal budget cuts.

“We can be smarter, we can be more efficient with whatever dollars we do get,” he said.

The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, holding 95 percent of the United States’ surface fresh water, wide forest and wilderness areas, rich agricultural land, thousands of smaller lakes and nearly 30,000 islands.

For the CEAP cropland studies, the NRCS works in partnership with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Texas AgriLife Research and Extension of Texas A&M University. The interagency modeling team uses computer models to compare simulations of the existing conditions of natural resources in the study area to conditions that would be expected if conservation practices were not in use. The agency expects to have its series of CEAP watershed studies covering the 48 contiguous states online next year.

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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