Update from the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force

Excess phosphorus in Lake Erie is one cause of the resurgence of harmful algal blooms.

A conversation with Todd Hesterman, Henry County no-till farmer on the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force

OCJ: Can you provide a little background about the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force?

Todd: In January 2007, in consultation with Heidelberg University, Ohio EPA convened the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force. The goals of the Task Force were: to identify and evaluate potential point and nonpoint sources of phosphorus to Ohio tributaries; determine what practices may have changed since 1995 that could increase DRP loads; examine various aspects of agriculture that might influence the increase in DRP loads; review the possible/probable relationships of the increased DRP loads to the eutrophication problems that have returned to Lake Erie (particularly the western basin); consider the impacts of zebra and quagga mussels in altering the internal cycling of phosphorus in the lake itself; determine if these issues were unique to Lake Erie or occurring on a broader basis; identify research and monitoring needs; and recommend management actions that could be implemented to alleviate current conditions. The Task Force included representatives from state and federal agencies, Lake Erie researchers, soil scientists, agricultural program representatives and wastewater treatment plant personnel. Experts in a variety of disciplines were invited to provide presentations and additional insight into issues beyond the expertise of Task Force members.

OCJ: Why and how was it formed?

Todd: In the 1970’s the water quality was terrible in Lake Erie but by the implementation of better management practices by both point and non-point sources, the conditions in the lake improved by leaps and bounds by the late 1980’s. However more recently there has once again been an increase in algal blooms in the western Lake Erie basin. These Algal blooms can have very negative effects on the drinking water quality and fish populations in the lake due to the toxins they can produce. The increases in soluble phosphorus levels were being found in water sampling stations throughout NW Ohio including small streams that feed the Maumee River. With these new trends the EPA wanted to see if we could find out what has changed from the 1980’s to the mid 1990’s that led to these trends in high P levels.

OCJ: Why is phosphorus such an important nutrient with regard to water quality in Ohio?

Todd: Phosphorus levels with other nutrients that enter the lake have an impact on the biology that lives in the Lake. Mainly the increase Blue-Green Algal populations that cause the green looking water that develops during certain times of the year in the shallow areas of the lake especially where the Maumee Rivers connects to the Lake. These algal blooms can produce toxins that effect drinking water quality and fish populations.

OCJ: Why has there been so much recent attention focused on phosphorus in Ohio?

Todd: Phosphorus has gained attention again because of the reappearance of the Algal Blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie. For a few years these blooms had subsided or reduced in size and severity. The Lake is such an important source of fresh water for major metropolitan communities so its health cannot be ignored. The Lake is one of our great natural resources just as the soil is to us who farm. For people that live along the shoreline it is very unsightly as well as unhealthy and very obvious. These conditions are not limited to Lake Erie but are being documented in many other geographic regions throughout the country.

OCJ: What process did the Task Force use to assess the situation in Ohio?

Todd: The task force was very deliberate not to assume that only one source was the cause of the elevated levels of phosphorus that was being recorded at monitoring stations. There was a large amount of data showing the degradation of the water quality in Lake Erie, but little was known as to why. So we created a list of possible sources from lawn fertilizers to the minute amount of phosphorus that makes up the glyphosate molecule in Roundup herbicide. All of the possible contributors were discussed and evaluated.

OCJ: What were some of the key findings of the Task Force?

Todd: One of the things that was found was how little was known or documented on the dynamics of phosphorus and its movement when it is not attached to a soil particle, which is the most commonly known way phosphorus moves to tributaries.

OCJ: In the past, much of the attention with regard to phosphorus has been focused on point sources of pollution. Has this changed?

Todd: During those days in the early 1980s, the point sources were easily identified and were forced to make changes to help improve the water quality. These point sources were what some may call the low hanging fruit. The easiest changes were made promptly for the most part, some things like separating combined sewers take more time and expense to do. Because many point sources have made changes and reduced the daily loading and we are still having issues the focus has broadened to include the non-point sources.

OCJ: What strategies are being considered for addressing Ohio’s phosphorus problems?

Todd: There will definitely be more research conducted to narrow down the possible causes and modes of phosphorus transport to the watershed. The task force is also looking at means to promote best management practices that will help in utilizing phosphorus nutrients to the fullest. Soil sampling techniques and frequency is also being considered as tools to better understand phosphorus applications and the affect it has on crop response and crop removal. There are many acres that are not sampled on a regular basis.

OCJ: How could agriculture be affected by these strategies?

Todd: It remains to be seen how agriculture will be affected, but I am very confident agriculture will be affected at some point and probably in the near future. As a producer I think there may be some common sense changes in fertility practices that may help delay any mandatory regulation.

OCJ: What types of agricultural operations are most responsible for phosphorus problems?

Todd: While there are multiple contributors to phosphorus loading, the most significant is the result of runoff from agricultural nutrient applications. There is a lack of evidence that differentiates the relative contribution of commercial fertilizers and the land application of manure. Commercial fertilizer usage varies from year to year and its use outweighs the land application of manure or biosolids by a factor of two to one.

OCJ: What proactive measures should Ohio agriculture be taking with regard to phosphorus?

Todd: Large livestock operations already have nutrient management plans they must follow. These same plans can be utilized in commercial fertility applications as well. I personally would not apply commercial fertilizer to the surface of frozen or snow covered or even saturated fields. The potential is much greater for these nutrients to leave the farm. This also makes sense due to the prices of fertilizers today. I have in the past fertilized for two crops in one application and I think I will now fertilize for one crop and one season. These two changes alone seem to be common sense approaches to use phosphorus more efficiently as far as profits and environmental stewardship. Soil sample areas could be improved upon to better represent soil type or management zones and how that affects yield and crop removal of phosphorus.

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