Since 2010, Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) have cost Ohio over $815 million. In addition, they have caused the deaths of Lake Erie pets, wildlife and plants and has caused illness in humans through physical contact or consumption. This cost includes damage and devaluation of lakeshore property, loss of tourism, loss of recreation, and additional municipal water treatment costs. How can farmers limit their fertilizer runoff and impact on the watershed? HABs tend to occur in bodies of surface water with excessive concentrations of certain nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. For Lake Erie, the primary source of these nutrients is agricultural runoff from high-production watersheds in Ohio and Michigan. The Center for Food Innovation wants to ensure that growing the agriculture cluster in Northeast Ohio doesn’t mean further degrading the health of our waterways. Through an interview with Max Herzog, Program Manager at the Cleveland Water Alliance, we learned about resources new and existing farmers can leverage to minimize their impact on the surrounding watershed.
What are Harmful Algal Blooms or HABs? Contrary to their name, HABs are a rapid growth of aquatic bacteria. In Lake Erie, these population bursts are primarily composed of “cyanobacteria”, more commonly known as blue-green algae. As the algae dies and decays, dissolved oxygen in the water is consumed. This lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, means that animals and plants die off, increasing the amount of decaying organic matter and creating a dead zone, where the oxygen levels are too low for most life.
Best management practices are well-documented. Techniques like buffer strips can help intercept pollutants, while practices such as crop rotation and cover cropping can help limit the need for fertilizer in the first place. Unfortunately, these techniques require significant time and resources, but the Ohio Department of Agriculture has been making direct payments to farmers who have completed Voluntary Nutrient Management Plans through the H2Ohio program. The program is expected to pay $2.1 million to 1750 farmers by the end of May 2021. For more resources on best practices, farmers should look into the 4R program which helps with proper fertilization, or the Ohio State Agricultural Extension which has a wealth of information ranging from best management practices to helping farmers with their taxes.
There are also plenty of new technologies and techniques being developed. For instance, drones have been used to apply fertilizer more efficiently by either spraying the plants directly or seeing which areas need fertilizer the most, minimizing overall fertilizer use and therefore, nutrient runoff. Drones can also be used at the regional level to see which farms are more likely to erode.
Max specifies that the increased use of fertilizer, while a main factor, isn’t the only cause of increased nutrient pollution. The wetlands which would naturally capture and filter these nutrients have been depleted. Fortunately, the H2Ohio Program is also working in this area. Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources has been rapidly designing and breaking ground on innovative wetland restoration efforts in the Maumee watershed and Sandusky Bay. This is another area where imaging technology will help maximize efficiency of resources. IoT based water-quality sensors may help find sources of nutrient pollution and deliver high-frequency data for real-time performance monitoring and adaptive management.
For more information, check out Cleveland Water Alliance’s website and webinar series which focuses on different topics of water data. It features an expert panel and Q&A. They will also be hosting the third iteration of their Erie Hack. This is an opportunity for residents across the Lake Erie region to bring the technical skills they have to the table and pitch an innovative solution to Lake Erie challenges. Participants are connected with mentors and advisors who help them perfect their idea. In the past, winners of the competition have received $100,000 to help launch their idea.