Springtime = Farm Runoff Time

As Spring soon rolls into the Midwest, the ugly reality of melting snow across hundreds of thousands of manure fertilized fields again manifests. And the picture is not pretty.

In recent years Lake Erie has experienced Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) larger than the size of New York City. Most of this pollution — which comes in the form of phosphorus — empties into the Western Ohio part of the Lake via the Maumee River basin.

In this Aug. 3, 2014, file photo, the City of Toledo water intake crib is surrounded by algae in Lake Erie, off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)

Since the  Cuyahoga River Basin contains over 15%, or nearly 2,000,000 people, of the State of Ohio’s population, it is popular to contend that these cities are responsible for the pollution. But this argument falls flat, according to a report from LakeErieAlgae.com.

The differences in how heavy spring rainfalls affect phosphorus loads in two watersheds – the Maumee and the Cuyahoga – show the different impacts of non-point sources (like the primarily agricultural lands in the Maumee River basin) and point sources (like the urban and industrial lands in the Cuyahoga River basin, which houses nearly 15% of Ohio’s population). Both watersheds occasionally have combined sewer overflows (CSOs), but research suggests these volumes pale in comparison to the river volume during storms.

In short, the Maume River, flowing through the mostly agricultural Maumee River Basin, is responsible for the vast majority of the phosphorus pouring into Lake Erie. And this phosphorus is the key trigger to HABs.

Watch closely as Spring 2017 approaches. HABs will result no matter what but, should heavy rains accompany the annual melting of snow, record HABs will again be reported across not just Lake Erie, but throughout the USA and beyond.

This excellent report from The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) offers numerous touch points on how to curb HABs, like the below:

  • We need increased actions to address nonpoint source pollution, in particular agricultural runoff. This includes increased targeting of Farm Bill and other programs to priority areas, and continuing research to identify key nutrient source areas.

Summer HABs will be explained in no small part by Spring meltdown and precipitation levels.

The connection is indisputable.

Clean Water New Year’s Resolutions

The year 2017 rings in with many of us, all over the planet, resolving to do better.

  • Get in better shape.
  • Become more skilled and a better co-worker on the job.
  • Be more altruistic and a better member of society.

As a planet, becoming better stewards of clean water can be added to this list. But what can we do?

The City of Bellevue, WA, offers terrific suggestions to its residents for reducing contamination to surface water. Pollution from cities like Bellevue is called point pollution, as described below in an excerpt from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) site:

The term “point source” means any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.

Importantly, point pollution does not include agricultural storm water discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture. Otherwise known as farm runoff.

Managing Animal Grazing Helps Prevent Toxic Water Runoff.

Point pollution, often to the surprise of many, also does not account for the vast majority of surface water pollution across the USA and elsewhere. That responsibility lies with agriculture, and farm runoff.

In this 2014 Scientific American article, Lake Erie Basin farm fields are cited as being responsible for at least 60% of the phosphorus now reaching Lake Erie. Phosphorus is the key nutrient feeding the epic algae blooms occurring annually in the lake. This 60% figure is tossed around regularly — in many places the percentage is as high as 80% — wherever and whenever agriculture, algae blooms and phosphorus are discussed.

So, in addition to what Bellevue, WA suggests we as individuals can do to foster clean surface water, let’s encourage agriculture to resolve to follow some guidelines for the new year as well. Priority areas noted below, and the specific practices recommended, come from the Environmental Protection Agency’s guide: National Management Measures to Control Non-point Source Pollution from Agriculture.

Conservation Tillage – leaving crop residue (plant materials from past harvests) on the soil surface reduces runoff and soil erosion, conserves soil moisture, helps keep nutrients and pesticides on the field, and improves soil, water, and air quality;
Crop Nutrient Management – fully managing and accounting for all nutrient inputs helps ensure nutrients are available to meet crop needs while reducing nutrient movements off fields. It also helps prevent excessive buildup in soils and helps protect air quality;
Pest Management – varied methods for keeping insects, weeds, disease, and other pests below economically harmful levels while protecting soil, water, and air quality;
Conservation Buffers – from simple grassed waterways to riparian areas, buffers provide an additional barrier of protection by capturing potential pollutants that might otherwise move into surface waters.
Strategic Irrigation Water Management – reducing non-point source pollution of ground and surface waters caused by irrigation systems;
Grazing Management – minimizing the water quality impacts of grazing and browsing activities on pasture and range lands;
Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) Management – minimizing impacts of animal feeding operations and waste discharges through runoff controls, waste storage, waste utilization, and nutrient management;
Erosion and Sediment Control – conserving soil and reducing the mass of sediment reaching a water body, protecting both agricultural land and water quality and habitat.

The new year has arrived. Here’s hoping it will be a good one for everyone — starting with the water we share.

Organic vs. Conventional Farming – Which Favors Cleaner Water?

In a 2011 study conducted by the University of Vermont, stemming from clean water issues in revered Lake Champlain, results were inconclusive as to whether organic farming or conventional farming practices favor a cleaner lake.

What is suggested is, all other things being equal, the rigidity of organic farming standards (some of which are noted below) lend themselves to better land management practices – which may have a positive impact in reducing the nutrient (see: manure) runoff that is largely responsible for Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs). Some standards mentioned are:

  • All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety,
    the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.

    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
  • Land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.

According to the study, a challenge the organic farmer with animals faces, which a conventional farmer may not, is keeping pastured animals from directly wading into streams and lakes — instantly polluting the water.

  • For grazing animals it is important to regulate the extent to which the cows interact with natural waterways. Where livestock have access to these waters there is an increased risk of nutrient losses to surface water.

Clearly the motivation to go organic in farming extends beyond better land management — and the chart above illustrates the financial incentive that may accompany such a move — but there appears to be little doubt that agriculture runoff remains a chief contributor to pollution in Lake Champlain. This is largely consistent across the USA, wherever clean water issues arise.



Lake Superior – Optimal Conditions For Low Algae Levels

I have been told that, should one venture somewhat off-shore of Lake Superior — let’s say a mile or two — it would be possible to dip one’s cup into the water, and freely drink from the lake. I have not tried it, and would not encourage the practice, but I believe it.

I am not alone. Naturally Superior has this to say on the subject: Lake Superior is the cleanest of the Great Lakes,and many people drink the water regularly (even in their homes). On a trip, the decision is yours. For your safety we bring a high quality water filter or boil our water.

There may be several reasons to explain Lake Superior’s pristine waters, and veritable absence of algae blooms but, according to Robert Sterner, a Minnesota Sea Grant researcher and Limnologist, there are three primary factors:

Lake Superior Cliff
Lake Superior Cliff
  • One variable is latitude. A more northern latitude means a shorter growing season and less carbon input into the lake’s system from plants like algae.
  • Another variable is geology. Granitic-rock covered by pine forests doesn’t contribute much phosphorus to the lake.
  • The third thing Sterner emphasized is the lake’s homogeneity. “It’s mostly deep, it’s mostly cold and it’s mostly offshore,” Sterner said. “It lacks extensive nearshore mucky bays.”

And there you have it. If you haven’t visited Lake Superior, the trip is worth it. It is a global treasure that ideally benefits from what many of us would consider less-than-ideal weather conditions.