Toledo Water Crisis Brings New Urgency to Farmers' Efforts to Manage Runoff

01:52PM Aug 06, 2014
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Growers and others in ag community say they’ve been working to address the issue of Lake Erie’s high phosphorus levels.

After a weekend of stern warnings to avoid their city’s water, Toledo's 400,000 residents on Monday got the news that it was once again safe to grab a drink or take a shower using city water. The source of the crisis? A bloom of toxic algae that drifted near Toledo’s water intake in Lake Erie, resulting in high levels of microcystin, a toxin that can cause vomiting, poor liver function, and more.

But new worries for Ohio farmers may have just begun as people revisit the question of Lake Erie’s water quality and the role of agriculture. Runoff from crops and livestock operations, along with aging septic systems and lawn/garden fertilizer use, are one of the reasons behind the lake’s high phosphorus levels and blue-green algae blooms. According to a 2013 task force report, phosphorus from cultivated cropland represents 61 percent of the total phosphorus load in the Lake Erie basin.

As a result, many farmers are fretting that that they now will be unfairly blamed for all of Lake Erie’s problems. "My biggest concern was the situation in the lake, but now that it’s subsided, my biggest concern is that people will have a knee-jerk reaction and start scapegoating," says Wade Smith of Whitehouse Specialty Growers, where he grows vegetables and perennials.

Yet Ohio’s agriculture community has been working on the issue for several years. "We started with extensive outreach to our members, telling them, ‘You need to take this concern seriously,’" says Joe Cormely, communications director for the Ohio Farm Bureau. The organization has encouraged farmers to educate themselves about new developments in nutrient application and explore more strategic land management practices

Such learning will also soon be mandatory for some. In 2014, the Ohio legislature passed a law requiring farmers with 50 acres or more to attend a class before they can obtain the new license to apply fertilizer to their fields, similar to the requirements for pesticides.

Others say they are already using practices designed to reduce runoff and use fertilizer more strategically, from filter strips along drainage ditches, no-till, and more. "I think a lot of us are trying to do the right thing. We are adopting GPS technology and variable-rate fertilizer technology to get it right," says Paul Herringshaw, who farms corn, soybeans, and wheat on 1,500 acres near Bowling Green, Ohio. "We have a lot of concern about what is happening. … I cannot stress enough that Ohio agriculture has been more proactive that we are getting credit for."

Herringshaw points to farmer-supported research at Ohio State University, where research scientist Elizabeth Dayton is looking at phosphorus and agriculture with the hope of helping farmers and others find the best ways to manage yields, reduce runoff, and improve water quality near Lake Erie, which supplies drinking water to 11 million people in the U.S. and Canada.

"We need to identify the source and figure out what is happening, because nobody knows what is really going on," says Herringshaw, who notes that many farmers have reduced their phosphorus usage compared to the past. "Unfortunately, the research is going to take time."

That may be exactly what Ohio farmers do not have, though, when it comes to the question of taking action to improve Lake Erie’s water quality. "When 400,000 people are told not to drink the water, nothing is fast enough," Cormely of the Ohio Farm Bureau says.


Will Ohio farmers be under pressure to reduce fertilizer use? Will Toledo's drinking-water crisis be quickly forgotten? Share your thoughts in the AgWeb discussions.