H2Ohio budget challenges not over

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algae in Lake Erie

The interest is there, but not the funding, for the touted H2Ohio program, according to a report released Aug. 31.

Despite overwhelming interest from farmers in the northwest region, the Ohio Department of Agriculture cut the program from four years to one year, following pandemic-driven budget constraints that have impacted state government at all levels this year.

Two additional years may become available, depending on future funding, according to the report, which was released by ODA, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the state Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.

With some funds from Ohio’s Clean Lake 2020 Plan, the ODA wound up with $50 million for farmers enrolled in the H2Ohio program for crop year 2021.

The program is focused on reducing nutrient runoff from farm fields, particularly phosphorus, which contributes to harmful algal blooms in places like Lake Erie.

This year, it was open to farmers in 14 northwest Ohio counties. Nearly 2,000 farmers applied to enroll almost 36% of the cropland in those counties.

In the mean time, researchers say solving Lake Erie’s water quality problems will require long-term investments and work to reduce nutrient runoff. And some are suggesting that phosphorus built up in soil, rather than phosphorus from new fertilizer applications, might play a bigger role in those problems than previously thought.

Practices

For the first year, the ODA is focusing on helping farmers implement seven of the 10 best management practices reviewed by the Ohio Agriculture Conversation Initiative.

These include practices for fertilizing, using cover crops and crop rotations and managing drainage water. Future years will also include edge of field buffers and two-stage ditches.

Different practices are more effective for different fields, researchers say. Some farmers who use these practices might not be using the most effective ones for their areas, said Merrin Macrae, of the University of Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management, at Ohio State University’s Understanding Algal Blooms: State of the Science virtual conference, Sept. 2.

“Farmers often ask, ‘What should we do to reduce phosphorus leaving our fields?’ and we often say there is no silver bullet,” Macrae said. “We want to be strategic about what we ask people to do.”

Macrae is working on a paper to start defining regions where different practices are more or less effective. She said researchers would most likely need to do some on-farm trials to better develop these zones.

Regardless of the climate or landscape, though, Macrae said using the four R’s of nutrient stewardship — applying the right source of fertilizer in the right place, at the right time and right rate — is effective.

In areas with sloped, coarser soils, surface runoff plays a major role in phosphorus losses. In those areas, placing fertilizer below the surface is particularly important, Macrae said. For farmers who can’t do that, gentle incorporation is probably the next best choice.

Legacy

In some areas, legacy phosphorus could be contributing more to runoff than previously thought, said Will Osterholz, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Legacy phosphorus is phosphorus that has been built up in soil, rather than phosphorus that was just applied as fertilizer.

“We should care about this because the mitigation practices that we’d recommend for a new phosphorus source would be different than the practices we recommend for an old phosphorus source,” Osterholz said.

For phosphorus directly from new fertilizer applications, farmers would think about things like subsurface placement to avoid excess runoff. For old phosphorus, farmers can do things like try to keep phosphorus in the soil on the field, or even capture it at the edge of the field with some kind of structure.

Data came from 35 fields in the service’s edge-of-field water quality network, which is mostly in the Western Lake Erie Basin. The study showed that only 17% of the total dissolved reactive phosphorus coming off of those fields was coming from new phosphorus sources, like recent fertilizer applications. The rest was old, or legacy, phosphorus.

For new phosphorus, Osterholz said, the study also showed the amount of phosphorus applied did not seem to directly determine the amount of runoff in the short term. That doesn’t take into account, however, the possible long-term effects of applying large amounts of phosphorus. That phosphorus could still build up in fields and contribute to old phosphorus runoff.

But in the short-term, the type of application seemed to have a bigger effect. The riskiest type was broadcast liquid manure application.

Osterholz said this suggests fertilizer management strategies, including the four R’s of nutrient stewardship, will have a limited impact on phosphorus losses in the short term. Farmers and researchers need to add more focus on managing old phosphorus in fields, he said.

Future

The ODA is currently seeking other ways to fund its part of the H2Ohio program. Based on applications the ODA received this spring, it would need an additional $45 million in funding to keep the program going through crop year 2023.

The program was also scheduled to open up to farmers across the state after the first year, but the ODA said it would need more funding.

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