Communication is crucial in water quality debate

By Matt Reese

As Ohio faces mounting water quality concerns with agriculture as culprit on the “to blame” list, there will be an inevitable debate over the balance of political perceptions and actual edge-of-field reality in terms of how to address the problem.

The green, toxic scum in Lake Erie and other Ohio bodies of water puts the interests of potential sources of excess phosphorus (which includes agriculture) against the multi-billion dollar recreation/drinking water value of the state’s lakes and streams. Something must be done about the problem, but there is still much work required to determine exactly what that something should be.

An important step for agriculture took place last November with the release of the Ohio Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Practice Standard for Nutrient Management.

“In Ohio we’ve had 26 water bodies affected by the toxic algae. Last year there were three states that had cattle die from drinking water with these toxins. The value of nutrients that went down the

This bird's eye view of the Western Basin of Lake Erie shows the sediment and harmful algal blooms that hurt water quality and will likely require some changes from agriculture.

Maumee River in 2007 was $9 million in phosphorus and $57 million in nitrogen. Because of these challenges, we are going to see an increasing regulatory environment. Every state is required to have a nutrient reduction strategy,” said Kevin Elder, with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “The issues are the same for crop producers and livestock producers. The issues with water quality are going to be across the board for everybody. This document talks about 4R Nutrient Stewardship — right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and with the right placement. Everybody is on the same page with this and headed towards the same goal.”

At this point, the issues of water quality are centered on the loss of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). There may also be an increasing emphasis on developing a uniform standard for soil test recommendations.

“They are tying to get a handle on nutrients moving off site in solution, or a liquid form with water. Most of the research in the past has been concentrated on controlling sediment losses that carry nutrients,” Elder said. “Today they are finding out that more nutrient is moving in that solution. Now it is a whole new ballgame trying to control water movement and exposure of fertilizers and manures to water that may move off the field. This all goes back to the 4Rs and the two components of the equation that we are looking at more are timing and placement. There is edge-of-field research going on today to get a better idea of when those nutrients are moving and how they are moving in solution in surface and subsurface flows.”

As the research moves forward, the potential for the future of nutrient management in Ohio will take shape.

“First, I think you’ll see recommendations to see if we can get change before there are regulations,” Elder said. “This is difficult to regulate because it is difficult measure and there are so many different agricultural activities, soil types and ecosystems in Ohio. There is not one answer. We’re going to do a lot of research and gather data that will tell us what the best practices are in most situations. They are going to be targeting farms to make sure everybody has a nutrient management plan.”

Elder said another important step moving forward will be improved communications about nutrient management between all parties including the farmer, commercial applicator, landowner, manure supplier, soil test lab and others.

“Nutrient management is a group effort — everyone needs to be on the same page with these issues of concern,” he said. “Every farm has a balance of nutrients. The issue is that we need to know what this balance is and keep it in balance and minimize the nutrient movement. There is not a single answer, but it is something we need to pay attention to and think about.”

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