Even on the shores of pristine Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake on the planet, holding the world’s 2nd-most volume of fresh surface water, the impact of agricultural runoff is profoundly felt.
In this excellent though slightly dated piece from Farms Not Factories, it is clear that farm runoff was a concern even six years ago. Just a few weeks ago, the problem of pollution from runoff ran afoul once again.
Ashland, Wisconsin storm yields sewage runoff. (Article headline only) Importantly, though in this case the city is being held responsible as the contributor, it is commonly accepted that agriculture is the primary source. As of this writing, there is no tally on how much farm runoff resulted from this storm.
Interestingly, within comprehensive studies on based not on runoff, but on climate change — such as this excellent study completed for Ashland-based Northland College in April 2019 — the profound impact of agricultural appears. Here it is the mention of the mounting frequency of heavy rains which particularly in spring wash tons of animal manure into lakes and streams. And in Ashland, most notably Chequamegon Bay is the unfortunate final destination. From the study:
• Existing records do indicate that heavy rain events have become more frequent in the Chequamegon Bay Ares (CBA). • Most models and experts agree that heavy rain events will continue to increase in frequency and strength.
This is not good news for the shallow bay, which is a treasured source of recreation and sport fishing for residents and the tourists who contribute mightily to the economy of this area.
None of us would argue that efficiencies in agriculture — reducing costs to raise and harvest crops, and feed animals, for starters — have had a monumental and often very positive impact for consumers. Long story short: people need to be fed and, with a global strain of 6.5 billion, agriculture has come up with solid solutions for feeding the masses.
But producing efficiently is but one piece of the global agricultural puzzle. Another just as important component is conserving efficiently.
I would argue that this estimate is too low. A recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune notes that the State of Ohio alone has received millions in aid to treat harmful algae bloom (HAB) activity and other agriculture pollution issues largely affecting Lake Erie.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has spent millions on cleaning up beaches and restoring wetlands that filter pollutants along the lake shore. In all, Ohio has received just over $200 million in federal funding from the program since 2011.
While funding and incentives to improve land management from Federal and State government sources exist — through a variety of sources, like the US Department of Agriculture — to participate requires considerable effort, including an involved application process, on the part of farmers. If the financial incentive to implement better practices does not meet or exceed a crop-and-harvest approach, it is likely that only the most motivated (see environmentally friendly) farmers will apply.
What is needed is a strategy that rewards the farmers most economically challenged, or least concerned, to make permanent improvements to their land management practices. Depending on their location, these are the farms contributing most densely to HABs — farms which, within reason, are not necessarily of a particular size — that must be targeted for any real conservation impact to be realized.
The inauguration of United States’ 45th President Donald J. Trump represents America’s ceremonial yet very real transfer of presidential power. In his address, President Trump promises among things to “never let (Americans) down.” His vow to bring back jobs, and rebuild infrastructure by improving roads, schools, bridges, airports, etc., is a bold one.
Although it is likely few Americans expect a shiny new country four years from now, the success of President Trump’s administration will be measured by bricks and mortar — upgraded and replaced from the labor of American hands. Should he fall flat on this great promise, clearly he will have let down US citizens.
It is not necessarily alarming that nowhere in President Trump’s speech was there the mention of clean water. Surface and ground water problems are often local, and governing clean water issues is generally left to area, regional, and state government.
But this year, when Toledo, OH (again) cannot tap drinking water; when Waukesha County, WI, (again) cries out for freshwater from Lake Michigan; when a proliferation of lakes and rivers all across the USA (again) fill with Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) — threatening the health and well-being of tens of millions of Americans — the United States’ freshwater crisis will (again) emerge. The crisis already exists in pockets throughout the USA and, in President Trump’s tenure, it will likely become a highly visible federal government priority.
Rewarding farmers, long-term and permanently, for implementing best practices is key to in any meaningful way cleaning up surface water. Farmers must be willing to accept the reality that economic and land-management changes to their operations are necessary, and must now be implemented. Government, working with nimble non-profits like Clean Water Warrior, must be swift in providing resources to assist and reward farmers making these best-practice changes.
It will be an interesting four years. President Trump – the stage is yours.
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.
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.
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.