Could water quality trading help solve Ohio’s nutrient issues?

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Mark Smith, NRCS
Mark Smith, state resource conservationist with NRCS, spoke to commissioners about nutrient issues May 13.

WOOSTER, Ohio — A group of Ohio county commissioners is considering ways that water quality trading plans might help solve some of the state’s water quality issues.

Members of the Joint Water Quality Taskforce and the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee met May 13, at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, where they learned about two voluntary efforts between farmers and industry, that led to water quality improvements in Ohio’s Sugar Creek Watershed.

Deana Hudgins, a research associate with Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, told commissioners about how local farmers worked together in the early 2000s to improve the 357-square-mile Sugar Creek Watershed, which runs from the Smithville area in Wayne County, southward into Tuscarawas County and the Tuscarawas Watershed.

Second opinion

Hudgins said it started in 1998, when the Ohio EPA declared the watershed the second most impaired in the state. At the time, farmers weren’t sure they trusted the EPA’s findings, and approached researchers at OSU to test the EPA’s findings, and see if they were accurate.

“It turns out our findings did support the EPA’s data,” Hudgins said. “The watershed was definitely impaired.”

At that point, farmers began working with conservationists and experts on practices they could install to fix the issue. A big thing was installing buffers, such as trees and grasses, between fields and water bodies.

“This group of farmers took it upon themselves to become educated on what they could do on their own property,” Hudgins said.

The farmers worked together on a grass-roots basis, at first funding their own projects. They became known as the Sugar Creek Partners, and are still active in conservation.

Water quality trading

One of the projects that came from the Sugar Creek model was the Alpine Cheese Co. Water Quality Trading Plan. In 2007, when a private cheese processor was facing an EPA order to reduce emissions, it partnered with area farmers and the Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District to form a water quality trading effort.

By paying for improvements to its own cheese plant, and paying farmers for specific conservation practices, the Alpine Cheese company was able to meet the EPA’s load reduction requirements, and improve conservation across the watershed.

The company provided about $250,000 to area farmers, and additional funding to Holmes SWCD, and OSU, for administrative work and for stream sampling. Farmers were paid for their conservation efforts, and credits were awarded on a 3-1 ratio, meaning three times as many nutrients had to be removed, to be rewarded for one credit.

Michelle Wood, Holmes SWCD administrator, said some of the farmers in her county were reluctant to take government handouts, due to their Amish beliefs, but because the money came from a local business, and one where their milk goes, they were willing to participate.

Other watersheds

Wood and several county commissioners at the meeting would like to see water quality trading in other places of the state, including the Western Lake Erie Basin.

“I can’t see why it wouldn’t work out there,” said Matt Peart, a Wayne SWCD supervisor.

One of the differences is the size. The western basin includes three states and about 4.2 million acres of farmland. But water quality trading has the potential to make a difference, at least in the areas where it is implemented.

One of the key features of water quality trading is treating each watershed at the local level.

“Each stream and each community needs to be treated as unique,” Hudgins said. “We believe that nutrient trading has the possibility to succeed in all the different environments that you experience here in the state.”

Finding answers

Farmers and taxpayers both want answers to the state’s water quality problems, which have cost millions of dollars and now cover the whole state, including water that drains south into the Ohio River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

But farmers also want to know what they’re doing will solve the problem, and not create another one.

“The agriculture community is ready to put in some practices, but they also want to know that they’re the right practices,” said Wayne County Commissioner Ann Obrecht, a dairy farmer who helped organize the meeting.

Edge of field studies

No one is looking for answers more, arguably, than the group’s last speaker, OSU Field Specialist Greg LaBarge. He’s part of a team of researchers helping to coordinate 20 different edge-of-field plots in Ohio, that measure nutrient flow leaving individual farm fields.

Each plot is divided into two fields, to compare different farming practices. Researchers have been studying those fields for the past four or five years, to gather base data, and are now beginning to run experiments.

Both surface and tile runoff is being analyzed, and so far about half of the plots have an acceptable phosphorus runoff level, LaBarge said. But it’s the fields with higher concentrations that make up the difference.

He said researchers are in the process of comparing runoff from fields that receive manure, versus commercial fertilizer. And they’re comparing fields that have cover crops to fields that do not.

Farming practices

Many other practices are also being tested, including surface application of nutrients, versus subsurface application.

LaBarge said there has been some debate that maybe field tile itself is the issue. But he said not having field tile would usually be much worse, because it would increase surface runoff, and prevent the nutrients from filtering through the soil profile.

“One thing is evidently clear,” he said. “Managing nutrients from a soil test level standpoint is critical.”

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