Research yielding some clear answers to murky water quality questions

Farmers want answers on water quality. The general public wants answers. The residents on and around Ohio’s lakes and streams want answers.

But first, what exactly is the problem?

Laura Johnson works with the long-term water quality monitoring efforts at Heidelberg University in Tiffin. The research has painted a fairly clear picture of the agricultural impact on water quality in Lake Erie.

“We have a one of a kind long-term water monitoring program. The longest-term river monitoring efforts are the ones that run into Lake Erie like the Maumee, Sandusky, and Cuyahoga. We also monitor rivers running to the Ohio River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. At those stations we monitor all year round, every day and we try and get all of the storm events because that is when everything comes off the fields and out into Lake Erie,” Johnson said. “When we look at our agricultural watersheds, we see this big increase in dissolved phosphorus and it is bioavailable for algae. When we look at rivers like the Cuyahoga that are mostly urban, we don’t see those same increases. We actually see decreases because of the continued regulations on point sources. When we look at mixed land uses in watersheds like the Scioto, we see a combination of both. We see there have been some increases and we also see some really high phosphorus during low flows, which indicates problems with point sources. So we really see it all.”

In terms of the harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, there is a clear trend.

“We have found that between March and July the amount of phosphorus that comes out of the Maumee River is very closely correlated with the size of algal bloom in the lake. If we have a year where it rains a lot and we get a lot of rain running across the ground picking up phosphorus and getting it to the lake, we have a big bloom like in 2015. If we don’t have that like this year in 2016 where we were in a drought, we really don’t have much of a bloom. We had a little bigger bloom this year than in 2012, which was also a drought year and the other lowest bloom we have had,” Johnson said. “When we look at these export rates of phosphorus from farms, it ends up being only maybe 1% or 2% of what is being applied in the watershed. This means we are not losing a whole lot but it is still clearly enough to cause a problem in the lake. We have a lot of farms leaking a little bit of phosphorus. Because of this, nuance changes to nutrient management can have a huge effect. Most of the farmers I talk to are trying and want to do something about this issue. There is a lot of momentum moving forward and enthusiasm to try and implement some practices and fix this issue.”

Being proactive on this issue, Ohio agriculture saw this problem before it made national headlines with the Toledo water fiasco in August of 2014. Starting in 2012, big dollars were invested by Ohio’s farmers for researching the realities of agricultural nutrients and water quality. After extensive data collection and synthesis, there are finally some answers. The realities of this complex water quality/agriculture issue continue to be a bit murky, but there are some clear takeaways from the $3.5 million invested by Ohio’s grain farmers to determine how to best address the challenge.

Water quality2In a recent news conference held by the Maumee River in Toledo, Elizabeth Dayton from The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences provided progress observations and presented on-field data spanning 29 farm fields, 2,000 water samples and 42,000 data analyses since 2012.

Her key findings are:

  • Agricultural soil phosphorus levels are holding steady or trending downward in at least 80% of Ohio counties from 1993 through 2015.
  • Soil nutrient testing is vital to determining the right amount and type of fertilizer needed for crops.
  • Incorporating fertilizer into the soil through banding or injecting has the potential to reduce the concentration risk of phosphorus in runoff up to 90% under certain conditions.
  • Tile drainage is an effective filtration system that can reduce soil erosion and prevent the loss of nutrients. In general, phosphorus concentration from tile runoff is less than in surface runoff.
  • Current guidelines for phosphorus levels in soil established by Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations appear to be on the right track.
  • Nearly three-quarters of phosphorus in surface runoff is attached to and travels with eroded soil sediment, making erosion control a key to phosphorus runoff control.

Dayton said that phosphorus and other nutrients concentrated on the surface along with steadily increasing soil nutrient levels in the late 1980s and early1990s were significant factors in the increased problems of algal blooms in lake Erie. Addressing those two problems is a great start for individual farms.

“Maintaining your soil phosphorus levels within the agronomic range continues to be vitally important. Another thing that is really important is fertilizer placement method to get those nutrients in contact with soil as opposed to just surface application — that reduces your runoff risk astronomically,” Dayton said. “Our participating farmers in the research have a multitude of crop rotations. Most of them are corn-beans, some are corn-beans-wheat and some are continuous corn. What we find is across all of those rotations we come back to the same things: manage your soil test levels; make sure your fertilizer placement gets in contact with the soil; try not to have bare ground through the winter. Keep cover on your field to keep erosion to a minimum. That continues to be important as well.

“With all of the outreach and discussion we have been having, now soil test values are trending down significantly in 80% of Ohio counties at all levels. That is a great thing. Now fertilizer placement method is what I keep harping on. By paying attention to fertilizer placement method we can prevent a lot of nutrient runoff.”

Bill Myers farms in Lucas, Ottawa and Wood counties right along Lake Erie. He is excited to get some more answers that help him manage his farm in a way to minimize expensive nutrient loss and maximize the water quality in his community.

“We are doing grid sampling, we are making fertilizer applications and injecting or incorporating into the soil as quickly as we can to minimize the movement of the nutrient into the soil profile so we don’t open ourselves up to leaching and runoff,” Myers said.  “In the distant past there were a lot of surface applications that were made and we relied on Mother Nature to wash it down into the soil. We have been enlightened from this OSU research that this is not necessarily the wisest way to spend our money. We need to get it in contact with the ground two or three inches below the surface. That is the best way to keep it from moving. The biggest need we have moving forward is getting the information from the research that has been done that shows us which practices we need to enhance and which ones we need to pull back from. The sooner we get that information, the sooner we can prevent dissolved phosphorus from getting in the waterways.”

Terry McClure, the chairman of the Ohio Soybean Council, farms a bit further from the lake in Paulding County, but still well within the Western Lake Erie Basin Watershed where the algal blooms have been a problem. He said they have also made numerous changes on the farm.

“This is a complex subject with many moving parts. We can do our part by doing the best we can do on our land. If we implement the 4Rs on the four million acres in this watershed I think it will go a long way to fixing agriculture’s share of this issue,” McClure said. “We used to apply all of our phosphate for the whole rotation at once because it was easy. For our wheat starter we’d put a lot more on than we needed for our wheat. Now we break it up and we soil test in between. We make sure we get it on in a timely manner. We also make sure to find a time to do some light incorporation. If we do some vertical till right before planting wheat, we make sure the fertilizer is on ahead of that tillage and not the last thing that happens on the field. It is not always the easiest way to do it, but we believe those small things can make a big difference.

“Balance is the key word. We are learning so much. We need to keep phosphorus and other nutrients in the right agronomic range to avoid those spikes. We can’t use that one-size fits all strategy. We are learning we need to make adjustments from what we have done in the past.”

Keith Truckor farms in Fulton County and serves as the Ohio Corn Checkoff Chair. He is glad to see Ohio agriculture moving in a positive direction on this important issue.

“The methods farmers are using to decrease the phosphorus going into the waterways are working. On our farm we are soil testing every three years and we have variable rate application of nutrients to our fields. We do not want to over apply because if we do they will leave our farms and lead to algal blooms,” Truckor said. “I think the main thing here is that it appears the runoff on the surface is the issue we have with the phosphorus. We also looked at research with tile drainage and we are not seeing the phosphorus particulate out of the drainage, which is a good thing. That means the phosphorous is attaching to the soil particles and providing nutrients for the crops. We’ve found when we apply nutrients to the top of the soil and get a heavy rain event or if it is on frozen ground, those nutrients tend to wash into the waterway system. That is just not appropriate anymore as far as our farming practices are concerned. We have to do a better job as farmers to negate that. We have to use the 4Rs.”

The research also clearly shows that agriculture is not the only contributor of nutrients to the waterways and that many mysteries remain. But for now, those who are seeking answers on how to address water quality and nutrient loss from farms have some.

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3 thoughts on “Research yielding some clear answers to murky water quality questions”

  1. You wonder if anyone is tracking the water coming down from the upper lakes through Lake St. Claire and the Detroit River? I would think a lot more water flow comes in to Lake Erie from that source.

  2. Pingback: Research yielding some clear answers to murky water quality questions | Pure Lake Erie

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