Water quality: The issue and what’s at stake

(Part I of a III part series. See Part II here.)

WOOSTER, Ohio — If you live and farm anywhere near Ohio’s 312-mile Lake Erie shoreline, you’re most likely familiar with some of the environmental problems the lake faces.

You’ve been hearing about harmful algal blooms and nutrient runoff since at least the 1960s, when parts of Lake Erie were so badly polluted, they were declared dead.

You know that phosphorus is the major culprit, especially dissolved phosphorus. You know that it leaves your fields, as well as municipal sewage plants and even lawns, and travels into the lake, where it feeds the growth of algae — some of it beneficial and some harmful to humans and aquatic life.

You might even know the name of this algae; a toxic blue-green type called microcystis. And you’ve surely heard the nickname Walleye Capital of the World — a name the Lake Erie earned when farmers and the state reduced the lake’s phosphorus to near record lows in the 1980s and 1990s, helping bring back the highest concentration of native fish and walleye ever.

More than fish

But today, the problems are back, and it’s more than just walleye that’s at stake.

Lake Erie is bordered by four states and two countries, provides drinking water to 11 million people, annual fishing for 450,000 people,  recreation, tourism and an overall economic benefit to Ohio’s economy of $680 million, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

And while Lake Erie is by far the state’s largest water body and focal point, nutrient runoff is an issue for all Ohioans because it affects all of Ohio’s water bodies, including rivers, streams and inland lakes.These are water systems that millions of people rely on — for drinking water, farming, and for fishing and recreation.

New movement

The past three years, the state has begun a new movement to restore its waters and keep out unwanted nutrients.It’s difficult to say exactly where it began, but the near-record algal blooms of 2011 was a major factor.

The blooms of 2011 “galvanized public opinion and they galvanized the industry,” said Steve Davis, state conservation engineer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

That year, the late-summer blooms extended deep into Lake Erie’s Central Basin, and covered a record 2,000 square feet of lake. Beaches were closed for swimming; dead fish washed up on shore.

Since then, and even a few years before, agriculture, cities and lawmakers have been working together to find solutions. And while there’s still much they don’t know, the good news is, they’re mostly on the same page.

Working together

You might even say — they’re in the same boat.

“We are at the point, I think, where are all involved are rowing in the same direction,” Davis said. “The ag industry, the research organizations, the public agencies, the state of Ohio, the federal government — we’re all rowing in the direction that we all have ownership over this problem and rather than point fingers at each other, we all need to be doing our part. And that is happening.”

Davis’ comments were made during an all-day workshop for reporters on water quality and nutrient runoff, held this summer at Maumee Bay State Park. He was joined by about 10 other professionals, ranging from college researchers to farm fertilizer suppliers.

Tracking phosphorus

What scientists do know is the major culprit is phosphorus — especially dissolved phosphorus — which is 100 percent available to algal growth. Particulate phosphorus is a concern, as well, but is only about 26 percent available to algae.

There are three primary sources of phosphorus that enter water systems: lawn care products, municipal waste and agriculture.

With this in mind, Ohio’s farmers and industry leaders have been pursuing answers. They’ve recognized the role that agriculture plays in water pollution, and in 2011 began meeting as a statewide work group organized by three state agencies: the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The result was two-plus years of discussing what agriculture already does, and what it can do better, to help control water pollution from farms. More than a hundred farmers and organizations met, and helped create recommendations that have now been introduced as part of a new water quality and nutrient bill in the Ohio Senate.But regulations are just one answer to solving this problem.

There are also dozens of voluntary best management practices that, when combined, have a significant impact on improving the issue. And there are tens of millions of dollars in academic, government and private sector support being poured into helping make a difference.

See next: Algal Blooms: What’s being done, what should be done?

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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