Lake Erie: Project to focus on watershed run-off

Staff Writer

If agricultural conservation practices are implemented on 70 percent of the farmland in a Lake Erie watershed– and evaluated on a watershed scale – can they significantly help meet water quality goals for the lake?
A five-year pilot project in Northwest Ohio will attempt to answer that question.
The Ohio State University will be the lead partner in the project, which will receive about $6.8 million from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Another $4 million is being provided by the state through the H2Ohio water quality initiative, which the project will complement.
In all, investments by other participating agencies, agricultural businesses, and universities bring total funding to more than $18 million.
The water quality goals for Lake Erie aim to reduce runoff from agricultural fields in the lake’s watershed, especially phosphorus runoff. Researchers are looking to lower phosphorus levels entering the lake by 40 percent and, in turn, reduce harmful algal blooms.
“While other efforts have supported conservation practices across the Lake Erie basin, and demonstrated improvements at the field scale, there’s a need to demonstrate how these practices can move the needle at a watershed scale,” Jay Martin, project director and an ecological engineering professor with the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State, said.
Without that data, “We don’t know what type or level of conservation practices or support is needed to achieve Lake Erie’s water quality goals,” he said.
The project is set for the predominantly agricultural Shallow Run watershed in Hardin County, which is part of the Maumee River watershed and drains into Lake Erie. The goal is to have farmers adopt conservation practices on 70 percent of the watershed’s 6,800 acres.
The 70 percent adoption rate comes from previous modeling studies, which have estimated that level is needed to reach the lake’s 40 percent phosphorus reduction target.
To reach the 70 percent adoption rate in the Shallow Run watershed, the project will offer farmers there higher payments than are currently being offered for adopting conservation practices. The payments are meant to incentivize adoption of the practices and offset the costs of implementing them.
Laura Johnson, director of Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research, will conduct field-to-stream monitoring of changes in water quality.
Professor Martin said the project will provide a template to adopt in other areas, “So that eventually we can attain water quality and production goals across the Lake Erie basin.”
H2Ohio was first funded by the state legislature with an investment of $172 million in the 2020-2021 biennium.
The funding has allowed H2Ohio to begin a long-term process to reduce phosphorus runoff from farms through the use of nutrient management best practices and the creation of phosphorus-filtering wetlands.
Other practices covered by the H2Ohio program include variable-rate fertilization, drainage water management, cover crops, conservation crop rotation and more.


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