Ohio Water: At The Tipping Point

Lake Erie algae
Lake Erie’s Harmful Algal Bloom in 2015 was the largest ever on record.

It could be said that water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) is at somewhat of a tipping point.

On the positive side, diverse stakeholders from throughout the watershed are collaborating at levels we’ve never before seen to clean up the lake and preserve it for future generations.

Yet on the negative side, the 2015 Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) in Lake Erie was the largest-ever on record and the Ohio River this summer was inundated with a historically disgusting 600-mile long green algal bloom. And then there’s Grand Lake St. Marys, long believed to be one of the countries most polluted bodies of freshwater.

This grim future for Ohio water quality as it relates to agricultural interests in the region was acknowledged back in March 2014 with the forming of The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program. The voluntary program for agribusiness interests in the WLEB aims to assess an ag retailer’s commitment to maintaining water quality in the region, and having just recently surpassed the million acre enrollment mark, it’s undeniably making some waves.

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders The Nature Conservancy
Carrie Vollmer-Sanders

“With 25 certified branch locations servicing 1.2 million acres in the watershed, for sure we’ve hit a tipping point on the number of acres (enrolled), and we feel pretty confident on the number of ag businesses that have participated in the program,” says Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, Project Director. “It’s very encouraging.”

The program has taken some criticism since its inception, mostly for its voluntary nature and questions about whether the independent auditors that audit the individual agribusinesses are truly independent.

“It’s been not quite a year and a half, and we’ve already impacted 1.2 million acres just in the WLEB, and there’s 600,000 acres outside of that area that have been influenced by the program,” Vollmer-Sanders counters. “In my mind voluntary is the way to go. If people don’t want to voluntarily do the right thing, then maybe we need to look at other alternatives.

“It’s sort of like when I tell my kids they have to dress up for church. If I tell them they have to wear a tie, they put the tie on and nothing else. But if they voluntarily say let’s try to look our best today, they go get all decked out. It’s the same sort of thing in all areas of our lives. If someone says to do something and you don’t want to do it, you do the exact minimum. When we are free to make our own choices then oftentimes it goes above and beyond what that minimum would have been.”

For 2016, audits will remain ongoing, but Vollmer-Sand­ers shares that TNC is working on two end-of-year goals: One is to explore expanding the certification program beyond the WLEB, as many geographies have reached out to see if the program would work in their areas. And two, is to double the certified locations by 2016.

“Having 50 (certified locations) by the end of the calendar year would be amazing,” Vollmer-Sanders beams. “I don’t think the acres is going to double, but if we had 25 more branch locations that are giving the right agronomic advice for plants and water, that would be huge.”

Newest 4R Honoree

On February 1, Nester Ag, LLC., (Bryan, OH), an independent crop consulting firm that does a majority of its business throughout the WLEB, was the first outfit to achieve 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certified status in 2016. The nine employee operation was also the first independent crop consulting business to pass the audit.

“That program started out for the retailers and the difference for us (and retailers) is that we don’t sell anything and we don’t apply anything,” explains Joe Nester, Nester Ag, at the 2016 Ohio AgriBusiness Association conference in Columbus, OH.

“So, there was some discussion over that for some time, and then in late summer the Nutrient Stewardship Council asked if we would be willing to go through it as the first one, and it would be a learning process on both sides. So I volunteered for it and it went really good.”

Nester and others in the program have certain parameters they have to continue to meet on a yearly basis going forward to maintain the certification.

“We’re a long-term player in agriculture, and for agriculture to be sustainable we have to have efficient use of nutrients and minimize off-site movement that can effect our water and our air and soils. We have to keep getting better, and I think the industry is going to keep elevating the standards to where issues are totally minimized with our water quality.”

In-Field To Edge Of Field

If much of what Vollmer-Sanders is working on can be termed as “in-field” focused, her colleague Lauren Lindemann could be said to be heading up the edge of field side for TNC.

The new WLEB conservation director at TNC, Lindemann, who brings a background in hydrology to TNC, is implementing demonstration sites showcasing agricultural conservation practices to demonstrate a systems approach to conservation in the farming system, and furthermore, the watershed. This concept ties together for the farmer the use of in-field, edge-of-field and in-stream practices to hold back nutrients and sediment to improve water quality while improving on crop production.

Due to receiving multiple grants, Lindemann’s demonstration sites began being formed with help from partners and landowners in August 2014.

Lindemann says that by using two-stage ditches as a best management practice “we are able to stabilize the ditch. It is estimated that a half mile will reduce stream flashiness by at least 50%, reduce peak discharge during storm events, and on average reduce nitrogen by 1,150 pounds, phosphorus by 945 pounds and sediment by up to 53 tons annually opposed to conventional ditches. A two-stage ditch also reduces the need for yearly maintenance and will increase in healthy macroinvertebrates and other aquatic life over time.”

Demonstrations showcasing two-stage ditches are in Steuben County, IN (0.5 mile long), Lenawee County, MI (3/10s of a mile), Fulton County, OH (0.5 mile) and several equaling 1.5 miles outside of Kenton, OH.

TNC, with partners, use the two-stage ditch sites to host field days for farmers, conservation and natural resource professionals and area retailers.

“I hope to take these two-stage ditch demonstration sites into phases, each phase will add something to show the systems approach to conservation. Phase two this year at one two-stage ditch near Kenton, Ohio will show an edge-of-filed practice. We will install what we call ‘phosphorus removal beds’ at the end of drainage tile to capture the water flow off the field, and filter/absorb the phosphorus while the water continues to flow out through the two-stage ditch, out into the watershed,” says Lindemann.

Lindemann thinks TNC’s holistic, all-inclusive approach is going to make a difference in Tri-State (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan) water quality in the years to come.

“We really focus on the whole system — the in-field, the edge of field, in-stream and then downstream — so we’ve got some really cool things going on, albeit in different stages right now, but in a couple of years it’s going to be really awesome.”

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