Is ag up a creek without a paddle on phosphorus issue?

By Matt Reese

I think I have convinced my children that I am pretty smart. They are at the ages where they ask copious amounts of questions. And, every time they ask me a question, I have an answer for them.

“Daddy, why is this soccer ball round?”

“So it rolls after you kick it.”

“Daddy, why do we have a fireplace?”

“So we can stay warm in the winter.”

“Daddy, where do baby puppies come from?”

“Ask your mother.”

And, while it is important for all-knowing parents such as myself to have all of the answers, it is a matter of political survival for politicians. The reality is, though, that nobody has all of the answers. In the case of what to do about the oft-discussed algal blooms in Lake Erie, there are no clear answers. But, an “I don’t know” from a politician in response to an angry constituent

Is ag up a creek without a paddle on this phosphorus issue?

who got a gooey glob of blue-green algae stuck in his jet ski is not acceptable.

So, the politician offers, “That is terrible, I’ll look into it.” Soon the disgruntled jet skier becomes Lake Erie’s 5 million water drinkers and $10 billion recreation industry and there is a political cry for funding to solve the problem.

This funding goes to experts in the field, consultants, advisers and so forth, who know that the real answer is, “I don’t know.” But, it is amazing how quickly a couple of million bucks can change those, “I don’t knows” into, “We need to conduct more research into the situation in an effort to solve the problem.”

The current result is millions of dollars being poured into land use, agricultural management education, and research of a problem that may not even be solvable.

“We see signs of the problem, but the science hasn’t figured it out yet. There is no denying the pea soup in Grand Lake St. Marys, but at the same time we’re seeing close to the same thing in southeast Ohio where there are no livestock operations or nutrient applications,” said Mark Wilson, with Land Stewards, LLC in Marion. “We have science that says that dissolved reactive phosphorus will result in an algal blooms, but we don’t know the triggers. We’re going to see laws and regulations put into place and I’m a little uncomfortable with the approach that the government, USDA and Extension have taken because, while there is an educational need here, there is also some self-interest on the parts of these organizations to receive and distribute funding. The government wants to throw money at this to show they are being responsive, but nobody really understands the science of it. It makes the constituents in those areas feel like they are getting some attention from government, but in the bigger picture, it really isn’t going to make a whole lot of improvement overall.”

Even if all of the research, funding, and land use changes are a complete success and totally stop dissolved phosphorus from entering our streams and lakes (an impossibility), there is ample phosphorus already in lakes and streams to support harmful algal blooms for many, many years to come.

“We ought to be sampling stream ditches and river beds because we have a lot of legacy phosphorus that is re-suspending. There is enough phosphorus in the system that agriculture is set up to fail,” Wilson said. “This is about managing expectations. Right now there are a lot of expectations that agriculture will fix this problem and I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. People will say, ‘Look, ag hasn’t been able to get this done and we need to force them to get it done.’ But we’re not going to appreciably change the levels of dissolved reactive phosphorus because it is such a minute quantity.”

The massive government funding efforts for a “quick fix” of this extremely complex situation seem misguided on this issue when the chances of solving the problem in this manner seem so small. Wouldn’t the funding be better spent in addressing the problem in other more productive ways?

In short, this question has already been answered with a resounding “no” based on the money flowing into the area of agricultural phosphorus research that will ultimately lead to more regulations. Wilson said that this course of events is just one more step in a process that has been going on for quite some time.

“We’ve had regulation of manure application for a long time and there always has been a desire to use this as an inroad for regulating commercial fertilizer,” he said. “We’re seeing a culmination of a lot of things with this, but the government is already regulating nutrients. That step has already taken place whether farmers are feeling it yet or not.”

With all of this being said, though, these efforts are still worthwhile. Regulations or not, there is still much that can be done within agriculture to improve nutrient management, both for the benefit of disgruntled jet skiers and for farm production efficiency and profitability. Even the best nutrient stewards out there have room for some improvement on their farms with regard to this complex and challenging issue. And, there is no denying that there are bad actors out there that need to take significant steps on addressing this problem.

There is plenty to worry about in agriculture besides nutrient management, so grandstanding politicians, overflowing pots of money, state recommendations and countless farm writers filling publications with mountains of related information can’t hurt.

“There are good things that go along with putting these management practices into place, but I really don’t see significant changes taking place in the ecosystem and how these things are balanced with regard to dissolved reactive phosphorus,” Wilson said. “No matter what we do, we will have a nutrient enriched landscape that will continue to deliver nutrient enriched runoff.”

The real problems will ultimately result when good intentions based on “I don’t knows” turn into irrational regulations based on a lack of understanding. While the details about the future of this issue are uncertain, there is a general consensus that more regulations are coming, as it is unlikely that the problem of dissolved reactive phosphorus will be effectively controlled. In the meantime, farmers, crop consultants, commercial fertilizer applicators, and manure applicators need to take note of the exponentially increasing scrutiny upon them to operate in the best possible manner for the sake of environmental stewardship and the future success of their businesses. Good players will (hopefully) be tolerated, bad players eliminated and abundant research will be conducted courtesy of significant federal and state funding.

Until there is an answer on this issue, I just hope my kids don’t ask me about how we can control harmful algal blooms.

“Daddy, what causes harmful algal blooms?”

“Uhh. Politicians. Ummm, phosphorus. Uhh…jet-skiers…Ask your mother.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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