Ohio’s water quality issue mostly voluntary, for now

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LONDON, Ohio — So far, most of the conservation practices in the Lake Erie watersheds and across Ohio are done on a voluntary basis, and farmers generally want to keep it that way.

But that could change, depending on the situation in Ohio’s water bodies.

Terry Cosby, the state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said NRCS works as a voluntary agency, giving producers the opportunity to work with the federal agency at their own will.

He said there’s “nothing regulatory within our mission, and that’s something that I’m proud about and something that we want to keep.”

Which path

At the same time, however, he said “if things continue down the same path that they are right now,” a lot could change.

Cosby spoke at the Farm Science Review Sept. 16, where he was part of a panel of speakers who talked about the various ways farmers are combatting nutrient runoff.

Cosby said the game changed for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which houses NRCS) following the two-day Toledo water ban in August. The ban was issued after an unacceptable level of algal toxin was found in the drinking water at one of the city’s water treatment plants.

“We’ve (USDA) been heavily involved in the western basin here in the last few months, because of the drinking water situation in Toledo,” he said.

The ban affected about 400,000 people, and occurred during the annual bloom of toxic algae on Lake Erie.

Not discounting the bloom, there were also concerns with operations at the Toledo water plant and that it was not efficiently removing enough toxin.

The Ohio EPA had warned the city in June about concerns with the plant, and in late August, about three weeks after the ban, the commissioner in charge of the plant submitted his resignation, at the request of the city’s mayor, D. Michael Collins.

Same goal

The panelists at the Review were not pointing fingers, however, instead saying the issue needs cooperation.

“There’s a lot of partners working on this and it’s going to take us all to solve this,” Cosby said, adding that “the farmers want to do the right thing, but what is the right thing.”

Researchers are still trying to determine how phosphorus moves in today’s cropping systems, and an acceptable level of reduction. A general figure that is often used is that farmers in the western basin of Lake Erie need to reduce phosphorus runoff by about a pound per acre.

Cosby said he is relying on researchers in Ohio to tell him what is acceptable, acknowledging that an exact target is unknown.

Meanwhile, Cosby and USDA continue to promote proven conservation practices, like good nutrient and the planting of cover crops.

But he admitted that cover crops alone won’t solve the problem — and that farmers need to also be thinking long-term — and along the lines of crop rotation and diversity.

Solutions that work

Andrew Ward, an OSU ag sciences professor, said farmers need solutions that are site specific, and that allow them to be sustainable and profitable.

“There’s no point in coming along with some great idea that puts you (the farmer) out of business or increases the risks of farming,” he said.

Ward led a workshop the same week called Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters, which focused on best management practices for reducing fertilizer runoff. He said people often talk about targets, but with different percentages of different numbers.

“The end target is not a known number,” he said. “I think what we do know is we’re in that half-pound to one-pound range of phosphorus per acre, that we need to reduce substantially.”

Chamberlain reminded the crowd that the issue of nutrient runoff and algal blooms, while a big deal in Ohio, is also being seen across the world.

“It’s not just a local issue,” he said. “It’s a global issue and one that’s going to affect all of us more and more as time goes by.”

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Chris Kick served Farm and Dairy's readership as a reporter for nearly a decade before accepting a job at Iowa State University Extension. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University.

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