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Michigan, Ohio, Indiana join forces to fight cyanobacteria

May 5, 2015

Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana will encourage farmers to get technical and financial assistance to reduce runoff
Credit Helen Hanley / creative commons

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is teaming up with three states –  Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana –  and 40 groups to jointly tackle cyanobacteria, that scourge of Lake Erie that briefly shut down Toledo's water supply last summer.

Cyanobacteria thrives on phosphorus and other nutrients in runoff from farms. The hope is to deprive cyanobacteria of some of the food it needs to reproduce in massive quantities.

The "Tri-State Western Lake Erie Basin Phosphorus Reduction Initiative" won $17.5 million in funding from the United States Department of Agriculture to launch a program this summer. That money will be matched with $28 million raised by the initiative members.

Kirk Hanlin is with the National Resources Conservation Service.  He says the Tri-State initiative is getting everyone in a shared watershed to work together.

"A drop of rain that hits the ground doesn't know what state it's in," Hanlin told a group of officials and farmers at the program's launch in Dundee, Michigan. "All it knows is it wants to get to Lake Erie eventually."

The initiative will enlist farmers to voluntarily join programs that provide technical and financial assistance to reduce runoff. 

Hanlin says a great deal is now known about how to do that, but  farmers have to to allow specialists to walk through and assess their property.

"What happens once that water hits the field is dependent on the slope of the field, the type of soil in the field, the way that soil has been used over the last 40 years," says Hanlin. "So it really is a case of having to go to that individual producer, looking at their farm, and almost prescribing like a doctor would what they need to do on their farm to keep their nitrogen and phosphorus and sediment –  their topsoil –  on that land."

Stephen Shine is with the Michigan Department of Agriculture. He says just in the past two years, 95 farms totaling 52,000 acres on the Michigan side of the western Lake Erie basin voluntarily joined the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program.

Farmers in that program agree to comply with best practices for reducing runoff, such as no-till and chisel plow methods, and planting cover crops after a corn or soybean crop is harvested.

"The cover crops will germinate late in the season," says Shine. "They remain there all winter, and they not only hold the soil in place but they tie up the nutrients as well."

Shine says farmers can also get help with drainage water management. He says in the past, farmers would try to get the water off the land as quickly as possible. That practice has been turned on its head in recent years, with the aim now to keep the water in place longer, so the nutrients aren't washed into nearby streams.

Jim Isley has a 1,000-acre farm in Lenawee County. He's a fifth-generation farmer, and says he hopes to save money on fertilizer, as well as help the environment.

"I believe it's in our best benefit, as well as the rest of our society, to be involved in this and try to keep our land and water clean," says Isley.

Isley and his technology-literate son are already using a new technique called "variable rate technology," which uses soil and crop yield analysis to apply different amounts of fertilizer to different areas of the farm. 

That can dramatically reduce the amount of fertilizer needed.

"Now we don't farm fields by the field," says Isley, "but more like the acre, and with the current technology we can almost farm by the row."

Isley says he's seen first-hand the damage that too much nutrients in the water can do. 

"I went to the National Great Lakes Museum on the Maumee River last summer, and it (the cyanobacteria) was terrible. I couldn't imagine it would be so green."