Lake Erie: challenges ahead, but progress being made

Lake Erie
Lake Erie, one of the world's top walleye destinations.

PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — There’s good news on the shores of Lake Erie and across the one-third or so of Ohio that drains into the lake.

While the lake continues to be in the spotlight for water quality issues and toxic algae, there’s also an unprecedented amount of action being taken — from farmers and residents, to landscapers and municipalities, as well as state and federal government leaders.

And, while far from over, the results are promising.

During an annual science writers workshop Aug. 18-19 at Ohio State University’s Stone Lab on an island off Put-in-Bay, researchers and educators told reporters about the challenges ahead, as well as the progress.

Science writers event.
Science writers event.

“I think people’s awareness of the issues that come from agricultural runoff is much greater than it was 10 years ago, and I see a lot of folks who are getting very serious about finding ways to help address some of these issues,” said Jon Witter, an assistant research professor at OSU.

Drainage ditches

He has spent the past few years researching drainage ditches, which provide farmers economic benefits, and also help control the rate of water flow and nutrient loss.

Modern drainage systems include water control devices that allow the farmer to control when, and how fast, the water leaves his field. This can improve the amount of water available to the crop, and also help improve root structure and root depth — depending on where the farmer keeps the water level.

Most importantly for the environment, is how much nutrient loss good tile systems can prevent.

Related: NOAA algae forecast unchanged

The best tile systems, according to Witter, are showing a 60 to 80 percent reduction in the volume of water and the concentration of dissolved reactive phosphorus leaving the field. Phosphorus is the leading cause of harmful algae showing up in Lake Erie and across Ohio.

Sediment runoff is being reduced by between 16-65 percent, with similar systems.

Better ditches

Another practice is the use of two-stage ditches — or ditches that have an inner, primary channel for water flow, and an outer — wider channel — that handles water during larger rain events. The two-stage ditch allows for more water-to-grass contact than a single-channel ditch — and helps reduce nutrient movement during heavy rains.

“I think there’s a lack of appreciation for what goes on in a drainage ditch,” Witter said. “I think they can be both pollutant sources and pollutant sinks.”

Speaking of a “sink,” researchers and the private sector are also working on ways to clean up the material after it enters the lake.

Libby Dayton, a scientist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, said soil and mulch companies are harvesting the dredged material — which is often nutrient-rich — and blending it with soil and other material — to reuse the nutrients on the land.

Dayton said soil blending is “a viable alternative to open-lake disposal.” But at the same time, she cautions, “soil blending cannot consume all of the material needing to be dredged.”

Currently, about 800,000 cubic yards per year are dredged into the Lake from the Toledo port, which is about one-fourth of the total amount dredged into the lake.

Nutrient balance

While the focus is on cleaning up the lake, there’s also a benefit to having some phosphorus and other nutrients in the water, which can lead to more good algae, and more fish.

“When we’re growing good algae, we’re going to feed the food web,” said Justin Chaffin, a research coordinator with Stone Lab. “However, too much of the wrong kind of algae is harmful.”

Two of the main reasons the lake has so much algae — in addition to nutrient runoff — is because it has the largest agricultural drainage area, and it’s the shallowest of the great lakes, which leads to a warmer water temperature, and an ideal environment for algae.

A state task force to reduce phosphorus determined last year that a 40 percent reduction was necessary to correct the algae problem.

Along with recreation, the lake provides drinking water to about 2.4 million Ohioans. Farmers and lawmakers have been working together on solutions to protect the lake — without hampering farmers’ ability to grow crops.

“A hundred-billion-dollar industry here in the state of Ohio related to agriculture is something very important, as well,” said Greg LaBarge, an OSU Extension agronomy field specialist. “The land aspect is very critical in what we’re talking about.”

LaBarge said the challenge is multifaceted, because it involves so many people, and so much science and public policy.

Tile management

He agreed that one of the best success stories has come from good tile management. In addition to tiles that control rate of flow, some tiles are also being set up with filters at the end — to filter out the nutrients before they enter the larger stream.

“Tile is very important to a productive agriculture here in northwest Ohio,” he said. “Tile leads us to having healthy soils, it leads us to having a productive agriculture, so it’s something that we need to talk about.”

LaBarge said farmers are doing a better job with fertilizer placement and use, and are actually using considerably less — and relying on phosphorus already in the soil.

“If it was rate only that we needed to think about — just reducing rate — we would be half way toward solving the problem, because we are using less fertilizer from a phosphorus standpoint, to grow the crop,” he said.

LaBarge said a recent opinion survey on nutrient loss, conducted by OSU, showed that farmers generally have a positive attitude toward taking action and doing their part.

“I think there is that willingness,” he said.


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  1. Another tool you didn’t mention and that we have a lot of research on is to use gypsum to reduce soluble P losses from fields. An OSU Bulletin 945 (TITLE: Gypsum as an Agricultural Amendment) provides some good introductory information. I have a lot more data that I can share with you, including peer reviewed publications, that will help keep you informed.


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