Harmful Algal Bloom in Western Basin of Lake Erie: September 20, 2017. Photo by Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick.

Water quality update for Ohio

By Matt Reese

The agal bloom predictions are again coming in low for Lake Erie in 2022, good news for the Lake, the people who rely upon it and the farmers who often get the blame for its problems.

The 2022 algal bloom is expected to have a low severity index of 3.5, according to the final forecast from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration released June 30. This forecast uses an ensemble of different models, which consider phosphorus loading into the lake during the spring and early summer.

If realized, this will be the fourth year out of the past seven that the algal bloom will be rated less than 4 on a scale of 1 (mild) to 10 (severe). NOAA will release the final algal bloom statistics for 2022 in September.

“For years the farmer’s work has been judged on whether a body of water is green or not, but it doesn’t represent the improvements being made year over year,” said Jordan Hoewischer, director of water quality and research with Ohio Farm Bureau. “The research is telling us that Ohio agriculture has made progress on the water quality front and more education and upgraded technology should result in continued positive results.”

This trend of smaller algal blooms in Lake Erie lines up with recent soil test data from The Fertilizer Institute showing the number of soil samples tested for Ohio increased from about 69,000 in 2001 to nearly 274,000 in 2020. Over the same period, the median soil test phosphorus levels dropped from 38 to 26 parts per million (Mehlich 3).

“Soil test levels in Ohio, particularly in northwest Ohio, have been going down over time. There is a pretty consistent decrease in soil test phosphorus,” Hoewischer said. “Farmers are not just dumping nutrients all over the landscape. They are grid and zone sampling, using variable rate technology, and doing what they need to do to put a better crop out, improve water quality and their bottom line. It is imperative that they do that with the fertilizer costs this year.” 

Ohio Farm Bureau also recently released the 2022 Water Quality Status Report, which highlighted some of the complexities of maintaining and pursuing improvements in water quality. One huge challenge is the lack of predictability of the weather.

From the 2022 report: “Weather and climate have the biggest role in reducing phosphorus load into Lake Erie. There is a 50% increase in 1 inch or more rains in the last 30 years compared to the prior 30, as well as small areas that get huge amounts of rain, (3, 4 or 5+ inches of rain in a matter of moments), making it impossible to put any measures in place to keep nutrients in the field. Wet conditions are also reducing the time farmers have to be in the field, on average, losing five suitable field days in the spring and five more in the fall. This reduction of time makes it even harder to implement conservation practices that are outside the regular crop rotation.”

Hoewischer hopes expansion of the H2Ohio water quality initiative and the growth of the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative certification program, both designed to help farmers find more and better nutrient management practices, will continue to advance across Ohio and continue the trend of improving water quality. 

“H2Ohio touches 40% of the acres in the counties it is in. We have a lot of people continuing conservation or maybe starting these practices for the first time. The soil test numbers are a really good indication of the fertilizer that goes on the fields,” he said. “If those are consistently going down, then the numbers will need to follow suit eventually. If the problems do not decrease, then what else is causing the problem?” 

While these efforts, and the farmers implementing them, seem to be moving the needle on Ohio’s vexing water quality issues, there is still much more to understand about the complexities of the situation. This spring was an indication of just how challenging the weather can be in terms of farming and predicting water quality.  

“In terms of the rain, we have seen the same amount of rain every year over the last 20 or 30 years, but that total is up from the previous 30 years. That is why years like this year are a concern, because we have been seeing rain in buckets and it will even out eventually. I am worried about how the rest of the growing season is going to finish,” Hoewischer said. “I personally thought the predictions [for algae in Lake Erie] would be higher because of the amount of heavy rains we’ve had. It must have been too varied across the Maumee River Watershed to push those number higher. And if farmers were washed out and unable to plant, and they were putting pop-up on or in-furrow with the seed when planting well into June, and then sidedressing, a lot of that was just getting done in the last few weeks and it was not there when these heavy rains came through. Some of this may just be due to timing this year.”

The large rainfall events can muddy the waters even more in ways that are just starting to be understood.

“A report out of Iowa found 30% of the loading in the stream they monitored they thought was coming from stream bank erosion. With more, heavier rain there could be things that were previously stored or lying still getting washed downstream. Then if we have a couple of percentage points of loading coming from the Maumees of the world who are not reporting their loading from their waste treatment plants and the streambank erosion, the percentage coming from farmers is getting whittled away more and more from what we previously thought,” Hoewischer said. “This is not to say that agriculture is not the majority of the problem, but it does begin to narrow the circle a little bit for what farmers can do to solve this problem on their own.” 

The 2022 Water Quality Status Report also highlighted the broad swath of agricultural involvement in Ohio’s water quality efforts.

“This year most of the report is about the different organizations we are involved with. We want to make sure farmers are at the table on all sides of this thing. We want to make sure farmers are represented in these discussions. We are on the front end of a lot of things with water quality,” Hoewischer said. “For example, I’m on the Dredge Research and Innovation in Farming Team through the Ohio Lake Erie Commission. There is no more open dumping of dredge material from Maumee Bay. What do we do with this material? We are working on grants to study if corn will grow in this stuff. Do toxins come through? Are there heavy metals in it? Are there in-field applications for this to get it back in the system? To my surprise, the studies have been pretty decent. They have learned that corn will grow in it. Now we are looking at how it can be transported and distributed in farm fields in northwest Ohio.”

From the U.S. EPA Region 5 Great Lakes Advisory Board to Nature Conservancy Farmer Led Outreach Partners, agricultural representatives are involved in discussions, planning, funding, and implementing water quality practices in Ohio. An important piece of this puzzle is the innovative Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, now in the second half of the 10-year program in conjunction with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The project facilitates real world research, offers the general public the chance to see what agriculture is really doing on farms and provides farmer-to-farmer learning opportunities for conservation.

“We are really trying to get direct information to farmers who can implement it on their farm. It is real information and maybe farmers can hop on board on step 3 for something like strip-till instead of starting at step 1,” Hoewischer said. “It really gives an outlet to the farmers to talk one-on-one.”

All things considered, Ohio has made marked strides toward better water quality in a surprisingly short time due to agricultural efforts.

“As we look at the evolution of farming, we are constantly getting better. The technology is out there and being tested and implemented,” Hoewischer said. “We are not being stagnant on this issue. We are not just sitting back and watching. We are actively pursuing the next things being a part of the conversations that drive the decisions to create policies or funding for different practices. I get frustrated when people say that when Lake Erie is green, farmers are bad. We are not sitting back and making excuses, we’re looking at the data. We are engaged with all sides of this.”

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