WASHINGTON, August 5, 2015 Federal agencies and farmers are working to prevent a disastrous algal bloom from forming in Lake Erie this year.

EPA has teamed up with three federal agencies to improve monitoring of algal bloom growth and USDA has granted hundreds of millions of dollars to conservation initiatives across Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Additionally, farm organizations within the Western Lake Erie Basin have worked tirelessly to prevent nutrients from leaving farms and feeding blooms.

City of Toledo officials confirmed last week that microcystin, a toxin produced by cyanobacteria present in some algal blooms, was detected in a Lake Erie intake crib three miles away from the city. While the toxin was not found in “finished” drinking water, the city’s announcement was still unnerving for some, particularly for those who suffered through two days without drinking water last August due to microcystin contamination.

This year’s bloom is shaping up to be similar in size to last year’s – NOAA expects it to peak in September and measure an “8.7” on its severity scale, a number notably higher than 2014’s 6.5 rating and unnervingly close to 2011’s index high of 10. Fortunately, most stakeholders say that the city is better positioned to manage the bloom this year.

To start, new sensors at an intake crib are operating 24 hours a day and taking measurements every 10 minutes. Water samples will be taken at the treatment plant, and up to four times the amount of chemicals used last year will be ready for deployment when needed.

The city will also have access to an early warning detection system developed by EPA, NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey that will help water quality managers spot cyanobacteria algal blooms with satellite imagery. The partner agencies intend to develop a mobile app that can be utilized by water quality managers on the ground, allowing for more frequent observations over more areas than in the past.

Kirk Merritt, the executive director of the Ohio Soybean Council (OSC), told Agri-Pulse that farmers are committed to improving the way they apply nutrients on their land and have made changes in their operations, like using no-till and conservation tillage.

Particulate phosphorous leaving farmland has declined dramatically with the broad implementation of conservation tillage, Merritt noted, “but now the focus has shifted to dissolved reactive phosphorous (DRP),” on which algae thrives.                                                                                     

Merritt worked with the Ohio Corn and Small Grains Marketing Boards, and using their dollars to leverage USDA’s, they invested nearly $4.5 million into an edge of field research study. Three years later, the five-year On Field Ohio project has 32 stations set up on the edge of farm fields, monitoring water coming off the surface and through the subsurface for nitrogen and phosphorous around the clock. The data is being collected on land with different soil profiles and management strategies, Merritt said, so researchers can tease out which conservation practices are working best under which conditions.

Ultimately, the data will populate a web-based model that farmers can use to inform their management decisions. Merritt said Ohio State University, which is currently leading the research effort, will also manage and design the online tool.

OSC also supports the Ohio AgriBusiness Association’s “4R” stewardship certification program for nutrient managers, encouraging farmers to use the right source of fertilizer and to apply it at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.

The program, which started a year ago, has certified 16 retail facilities that together manage 650,000 acres in the Western Basin. The goal is to reach 1 million acres impacted by September, which is about 20 percent of the agricultural acres in the basin, said Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, the director of the Western Lake Erie Basin Project at The Nature Conservancy. Last year, President Obama honored Vollmer-Sanders for her work with farmers to reduce agricultural runoff into Lake Erie.

“Personally, I want 90 percent of the acres within the Western Basin of Lake Erie 4R certified in the next five years,” Vollmer-Sanders told Agri-Pulse. There’s really no way to predict when farmers will see positive effects in Lake Erie as a result of their efforts, she said, but if the in-field practices are implemented, “we will see big improvements.”

“In the next three years, I want to see us reversing the trend” in algal bloom size, Vollmer-Sanders said. If ag conservation initiatives like Lake Erie’s continue to grow in strength and breadth, “I think we’ve won, we’ve been able to turn the tides, and we’ll be able to – whatever weather patterns we have – we’ll be able to attack any natural resources issue.”


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