Oregon farmer says Wet spring could provide answers to algal bloom

J. Patrick Eaken

Former Oregon City Councilman Bill Myers believes 2019 could provide the perfect test year in finding out how Northwest Ohio farming is affecting algae levels in Lake Erie.
        Why? Because of a rainy spring, many farmers were unable to plant in the fields. Those that did plant switched from corn to soy beans because of a shorter growing season. Corn requires more phosphorous and nitrogen than beans, said Myers.
        Studies contend that after fertilizer is applied to Northwest Ohio farm fields, phosphorous and nitrogen drain into Lake Erie and feeds the poisonous algae. The algae can be difficult to control naturally and the toxin it produces, microcystin, can cause liver damage if ingested.
        Five years ago, the City of Toledo issued a three-day tap water ban covering the Toledo service area, which included 108,501 service taps and about 500,000 residents.
        Toledo responded by upgrading its Collins Park wastewater treatment plant in East Toledo with $132.7 million in improvements. But algal blooms in the lake remain an issue.
        Myers, who farms close to 2,000 acres on fields located three-quarters of a mile from the Lake Erie shoreline, sits on both sides of the fence. As an environmentalist, he is involved with the Lake Erie Waterkeepers Association and as a farmer, with the Lucas County Farm Bureau, serving as an officer for both organizations.
        His farms were also affected by the heavy rains this spring. He was able to plant only 150 acres of corn and 813 acres of beans. He left 650 acres of unplanted ground. Many Northwest Ohio farmers were unable to get into their fields at all because of wet ground. So, how will that affect this year’s algal bloom?
        “The biggest thing I’ve heard this year is the fact that somewhere between 55 and 65 percent of the normal fertilizer application didn’t happen this spring because of the weather and not getting things planted, so everybody’s curious and waiting to see,” Myers said.
        “So, if it’s commercial fertilizer, than the bloom ought to be 50 or 60 percent less than it’s ever been before. If the bloom is still large and we didn’t spread the fertilizer the way we normally would ahead of our planting, well, where is it coming from then?”
        Myers also notes that during the wet spring, many roadside ditches were not mowed, which should help “tie up” the flow of nutrients into the lake.
‘At the table’
        Myers believes agriculture is doing its part.
        “Yes, we grid sample our soil tests and we apply (fertilizer) accordingly to each grid required. I try to inject or incorporate the fertilizer when we apply it so it’s under surface application instead of on top,” Myers said.
        “I’d say that we’ve probably made some measured improvement,” Myers continued. “Are we where we need to be yet? No. Mother Nature takes credit for a lot of that, too.
        “Agriculture probably feels that they have a big target on their back still. We are making progress. We are headed in the right direction. The bad part about ag is it doesn’t happen as fast as everybody would like it to.
        “The biggest point to make to the general public is that agriculture has been engaged, agriculture has been at the table and we are adjusting our practices to improve water quality. We are not doing nothing — let’s reinforce the fact that we are currently involved in making changes to improve the runoff from our fields.”
        In October 2017, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown hosted a roundtable discussion at Myer’s Oregon farm. Brown was part of the Senate Farm bill Conference Committee that negotiated a five-year farm bill in 2014, and in April of this year, Congress passed an $867 million farm bill.
        Part of the conversation at Myer’s home was about best practices farmers can implement to keep Lake Erie phosphorous-free.
        In July 2018, then-state Senators Sean J. O’Brien (D-Bazetta) and Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green) co-sponsored Senate Bill 299, known as the Clean Lake 2020 Plan, which allocated more than $36 million to a number of programs to keep the lake clean. It was signed into law by former Governor John Kasich.
        “Republicans and Democrats brought together environmentalists, scientists, farm groups, tourism advocates and the Lake Erie Foundation to make something happen toward a cleaner Lake Erie.  This is not the last word on helping Lake Erie, but it is the next important step,” Gardner told The Press.
        Myers is curious to see how that impacts both the lake and farmers in the long run.
        “I think that will ultimately help the farmer with water quality in implementing the costly practices. The other thing we should always ask for, too, is where is the accountability? Where is the return on investment if we spend a million dollars on something? Did we get a five percent reduction in phosphorous, did we get a 10 percent, or did we get a two percent increase?” Myers said.
        “We never know the real reaction to the action, which is we should always be cognizant of that to try and make sure that we’re getting a reduction for what we are doing and is it enough of a reduction for the amount of money spent?”
Unanswered questions
        Myers has his doubts about where the highest phosphorous levels are originating from. Heidelberg University, for decades, has been monitoring and providing nutrient data from testing stations on tributaries throughout Northwest Ohio, but Myers sees no clear cut results.
        “I guess I’m disappointed that we haven’t pinpointed through testing exactly which sub-watersheds or tributaries are contributing higher levels than others,” Myers said.
        “After five years you’d have thought by now we’d be able to go up the St. Marys River or we need to look at whatever tributary that, since then to now, has been tested and shown higher or lower levels. I’m confused that we don’t have a little better handle after five years of where the source is or sources are.”
        In addition, Myers believes the crop farmer is taking too much heat, when more blame could probably be given to large factory farms, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
        “It isn’t necessarily corporate farms versus family farms. It’s  more `grow-crop versus livestock,’ I would say,” Myers said.
        Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, an environmental group, say that Northwest Ohio CAFOs produce more feces and urine from livestock than the combined sewage of Chicago and Los Angeles. They say the waste is dumped with no treatment whatsoever on fields that drain into western Lake Erie.
        Ohio State University’s Sea Grant data shows that since 1974 the dissolved phosphorous in Lake Erie declined for 20 years. Since the introduction of CAFOs in the mid-1990s, it has returned to 1974 levels.
        “Buffer or filter strips, no-till ground preparation and liquid manure injection have been shown to do nothing to reduce excess nutrients and in some cases actually make it worse,” said ACLE coordinator Mike Ferner.
        “Instead of wasting money on these practices that are part of the problem, we should fund what the Clean Water Act already calls for: a pollution inventory to determine sources and amounts, developing a TMDL (total maximum daily load) to set limits for pollution and a watershed management plan. All this is being done right now in Chesapeake Bay. We know it works and it provides real accountability—something the CAFO operators want to avoid like the plague,” said Ferner.


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