Ohio’s water quality goal? It’s complicated

(Part III of a III Part series. See also, Part I: The issue and what’s at stake. And Part II: What’s being done, what should be done?)

WOOSTER, Ohio — So, how clean should our water be?

If it’s the water in the glass that you’re about to drink, probably as clean and as clear as possible. But in the natural environment, clear water is not always practical, nor is it the ideal.

Although there are some lakes where the water seems clear, one of the disadvantages is that it often lacks the nutrients that help sustain fish and other types of aquatic life.

Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, said the lake water surrounding Traverse City, for example, is clear, but to create the same in Lake Erie would not only be impractical, but would also cause a major change in the lake’s use.

“We’re not going to make Lake Erie look like that and, quite frankly, we would be really upset if we did,” he said. “It would not be the Walleye Capital of the World if it looked like that.”

Lake Erie is more of a challenge than the other Great Lakes because it is the southernmost, shallowest, and also the warmest of the Great Lakes. It receives most of its flow from the other lakes, and is surrounded by prime agricultural land.

By comparison, it contains just 2 percent of the Great Lakes’ water, but as much as 50 percent of the fish.

Feeding the lake

Reutter estimates that 80 percent of water entering Lake Erie comes from the upper Great Lakes, with 10 percent from precipitation and the other 10 percent from tributaries. In Ohio, the tributary of most concern is the Maumee River and watershed. Although it accounts for only 3 percent of the flow into Lake Erie, it drains 4.5 million acres of agricultural land — including land in eastern Indiana.

“It’s probably going to flow brown a lot of the times, and it does,” Reutter said.

But farmers, researchers and the agricultural industry are committed to making the water much cleaner than it is today — and for the future. They brought phosphorus loading down from 29,000 metric tons in the late 1960s, to 11,000 metric tons by the 1980s.

Now, armed with new information and new technology, they’re out to do it again.Attack plan. The Four Rs of Nutrient Stewardship undoubtedly are front and center. The whole idea about applying the right amount of fertilizer at the right rate, at the right time of year and in the right place. But the industry is going much further, as it seeks to define what is “right” and how to best apply and manage nutrients.

One of the innovative features being used in the Lake Erie-Maumee watershed region is water control devices that actually restrict tile drainage according to how they are set. A farmer inserts a plate into a slot beneath the ground, and it controls how much water flows out of his tile system, based on which slot he chooses.

These devices can help slow below-ground water drainage and retain water for times of drought.

Other answers

Some farmers are also developing their own technology and designing sediment collection devices that are placed in streams and collect sediment as the water passes down stream.

A more popular option is planting cover crops, which help hold the soil and its nutrients in place after the primary crops have been harvested.

Another option includes the use of filter strips and grass waterways — areas where the farmer purposefully leaves unplanted, except for grasses, to act as a filter between the field and the surface drainage structure. By leaving a physical barrier, it helps cut down on nutrient runoff and the existing grassy plants absorb some of the excess nutrients.

Wetland restoration has also become popular, especially in places closest to lakes and streams.

Bill Stanley, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy, estimates a well-established wetland can reduce 20 to 50 percent of nutrients from water — a significant amount.

Legislative effort

The Ohio legislature, with input from the agriculture industry, is also working on legislation that would regulate how nutrients are applied. The bill, known as S.B.150, was introduced in the Ohio Senate Agriculture Committee in June.

It’s unclear exactly what that bill will do, and there is no legislative summary to date. But one of the bill’s two sponsors, Ohio Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Sabina, said it’s “a starting point”  for Ohio’s state agencies “to define what a nutrient bill would look like.”

Peterson said the bill will most likely “change substantially from its current version” as lawmakers hold formal discussions on the bill this fall. But two things he expects to be included are a licensing requirement for farm fertilizer applicators, and additional requirements for reporting how much fertilizer is being sold, and where.

As a grain farmer himself, he said it’s important to continue working with farmers to develop regulations that solve the problem, but also keep them in business.

“The last thing we want to do is pass a bill that limits Ohio agriculture’s opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Although there will be more requirements to report where fertilizer is being sold, Peterson said it will be important to protect farmers’ trade secrets and to establish a licensing system that is practical for farms of all sizes.

In the end, legislators will have to “find the right balance,” he said.Funding. In the past three years, Ohio has also received state, federal and private funding totaling about $27 million — to help research and solve the problem. That includes funding through the 2008 farm bill, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, and more than $1 million pledged in 2013 by Ohio’s farmers and agribusinesses.

In addition to research, most of the funds are used to provide contracts with farmers, to implement and test new conservation practices.

The Conservation Effects Assessment Project, for example, is a multi-agency federal program that quantifies and assesses the usefulness of conservation practices, and the best methods for managing agriculture, from an environmental standpoint.

Making a difference

Steve Davis, state conservation engineer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said a recent Great Lakes study showed that basinwide, farmers’ own Best Management Practices have reduced edge of field sediment loss by 47 percent, and phosphorus losses by 39 percent.

“In other words, the practices that farmers sat at the table and said ‘I’m doing,’ gave us these numbers,” he said.

Improvements will be “incremental,” he said, and it’s “going to take every one of these practices” to make a difference.

But when all the tools are used, the results are clear, and to some extent — so is the water.

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

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for a well-written piece.

    I run the Friends of the Scioto River, and we’re dealing with the issues you describe.

    On the one hand, we get agricultural runoff from all of the headwaters; we’re just across the divide from the Lake Erie basin and we get the runoff from a huge swath of north-central and northwestern Ohio. As you say, there are problems with sediment and nutrients, but we also have issues with chemicals like Atrazine in our drinking water supply.

    On the other hand, we here in central Ohio add our own urban problems like flash flooding due to pavement and rooftops, pollution like automotive fluids and floating litter, even pollution in the form of heat from stormwater on sun-baked surfaces.

    On the third hand, we don’t drain to a lake, so all of our problems just keep on going down the river to the Gulf of Mexico, and we have new water coming in all the time. We don’t have pressures like algae blooms affecting any major local fishing or tourism industries, so there’s less incentive to care about these issues.

  2. ODA Watchdog says:

    Draft S.B. 150 targets row crop farmers and commercial fertilizer – but conspicuously missing are any new practices or restrictions for industrial animal production operations and manure. Since Lake Erie was cleaned up in the mid 1980s, Ohio has undergone a tremendous shift toward industrial livestock production. According to the Ohio EPA – “Effective MANURE management is critical if we are to see water quality improvements and/or measurable reductions in nutrient loadings to our streams.” What a shame that row crop farmers are bearing so much blame for runoff problems in the western basin while the factory farms are getting a free pass.

    • may gibson says:

      Having lived with this issue since 1976, I find that the issue is correctable if the laws were enforced to protect all Ohioans. Sadly they are not and I had to abandon my home as for 26 years it could not be sold, not a good thing for any person in Ohio to have to deal with. Being 500 feet west of 10 poultry buildings owned Park Farms of Canton which were built on a wetland, in violation of the CWA is not how Agricultire should operate. Industrial Farms are ruining Ohio and it is about time Farm Bureau/Nationawide addressed this issue.

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