There was quite a stir this week in Toledo with news regarding the Lucas County commissioners’ sponsorship of a website identifying “hotspots” in the Western Lake Erie Basin watershed for nutrient loading. The Western Lake Erie Basin Nutrient Sources Inventory is described as a “mapping tool that identifies causes of impairment and potential pollutant sources that need to be controlled to achieve desired nutrient load reductions.”
The tool reshuffled existing data and offered a new platform for old arguments about the role of agriculture in the Lake Erie’s water quality woes. From a related story on Toledo’s 13abc.com this week:
This summer was the third largest algal bloom outbreak in the history of Lake Erie.
It was so bad, algae backed up into the Maumee River in downtown Toledo.
The city and Lucas County are spending hundreds of millions of dollars fixing sewer and storm water runoff that dumps into the lake.
But now there’s hard evidence farms need to do more.
Monday, maps of the lower Maumee watershed pinpointed where nutrient runoff is concentrated–it’s primarily in farms south and west of Toledo.
Those areas indicate higher amounts of polluting phosphorous coming from those farmland areas.
Lucas County commissioner Pete Gerken implores farmers, “Don’t defend the status quo that is poisoning our lake.”
So the call is for farmers to dramatically cutback on fertilizer.
And the data-based maps could prove farmers they need to do more.
Commissioner Tina Skeldon-Wozniak says, “We have to begin to make progress and we believe this tool shows the areas where that can get done.”
Unfortunately, most of those within Toledo’s city limits are not familiar with the complexities or the realities of agricultural nutrient management. Improved nutrient management has been taking place for decades as part of a necessary, proactive and ongoing effort to improve agricultural production efficiency, economics and water quality.
“The data in the report isn’t new or news,” said Brandon Kern, Senior Director for Strategic Partnerships & Policy Outreach for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “Farmers know they have a role in cleaning up the Lake. Their practical efforts, not political positioning, will get the job done.”
At yesterday’s 2017 Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium, researchers outlined the extreme complexity involved with agricultural nutrient management while also pointing out some of the practical efforts being implemented on farms, including tillage reduction to reduce soil erosion.
“The biggest thing that comes up over and over is controlling erosion risk. If you can keep your soil in the field, you reduce that particulate-bound phosphorus in the runoff and that is the biggest risk driver for most fields,” said Elizabeth Dayton, a soil scientist with Ohio State University at the Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium in Columbus. “And most everyone agrees that if you are banding or injecting you are getting good soil contact with your fertilizer and not increasing your erosion. The challenge is always the time, the talent and the funding to make that happen.”
USDA Agricultural Research Service agricultural engineer Kevin King agrees on the importance of getting nutrients under the soil surface as a part of the 4Rs. He also spoke at yesterday’s 2017 Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium.
“There are no silver bullets with this, but first and foremost is the 4Rs. We first have to identify the source of fertilizer we have and we need to be soil testing and adhering to those soil tests. We need to use the Tri-State recommendations and we need to be putting that fertilizer on as close to when the plant needs it as possible — no winter or fall applications. Then if you can get it below the surface, that is the ideal situation. We have got to get it in contact with the soil and get those nutrients down in that top inch or two,” King said. “We need to be talking about water management as well. We know that the largest amount of nutrients are transferred in those rainfall events that are an inch or two or greater. How do we store more of that water in our landscape? We’ve got means to do that. Drainage water management — this idea of artificially raising the outlet elevations of tile drainage — can go a long way in doing that. We can also raise the organic content of our soils through reduced tillage or no-till. For every percent of organic matter we can store an additional three-quarters of an inch of water. There is a new concept of using more retention/detention basins on the property to store water and maybe use that for irrigation at a later date. Being able to address some of the hydrology can keep water from going downstream.”
Accounting for the available phosphorus for the crop is also increasingly important, King said.
“Issues like legacy phosphorus are still unknown right now. Since the 1970s a lot of phosphorus went into the watersheds and we have enormous amounts in reserve out there in some fields. We need to be more aware of that,” King said. “We need to do soil tests and be aware of what is out there but we also need to make sure we move our mentality from a ‘build and maintain’ type approach to a ‘feed the crop’ mentality. Only put on what the crop needs or maybe a little less than the crop needs and understand that you have that legacy reserve out there. We need a better understanding of how much of that legacy phosphorus is transferred in any given year and is available to the plant.”
And, while the farm community is actively taking these and other steps to address water quality issues, there are no quick solutions to Lake Erie’s broad-based algal bloom problems, no matter what county commissioners, news reporters or a new tool using old data have to say about it.