DEFIANCE — Approximately 100 local farmers gathered Thursday evening to discuss what many northwest Ohio residents have been talking about for weeks — the recent Toledo water crisis.
The water ban may have come as a shock to the 500,000 people in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan who went without drinking water two weeks ago, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise to government officials and scientists. In fact, this very problem was something they’ve been predicting for years now.
And Lake Erie is only getting worse.
“We have to do something about this because, let me tell you guys something — it isn’t getting any better,” said Ed Crawford, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Soil and Water’s western Lake Erie basin specialist.
Williams County wasn’t affected by the Toledo water crisis, but efforts to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen here were discussed during the Williams Soil and Water Conservation District’s annual Field Technology Day, called “Don’t Farm Naked — Use Cover Crops.” The event was held at Ric Hageman Farm in Defiance.
Farms share something in common— phosphorus. The nutrient is a key ingredient in fertilizer and also a key food source for algae, allowing it to grow.
The phosphorus got into Lake Erie from farm runoff and fed the blue-green algae, which produces a toxin known as microcystin. If ingested, microcystin can cause diarrhea, vomiting and liver-function problems. While not fatal to humans, it can kill fish and pets.
The algae blooms in the late summer months migrated toward the Ohio shore with very high amounts of toxins, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A few weeks ago, the algae toxin showed up in Toledo’s treated water.
Since the crisis, Ohio and federal officials have taken steps to help stop the spread of phosphorus pollution.
Congress has even allotted a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative $1.6 billion to create wetlands and teach farmers ways to reduce runoff and fertilizer use.
Williams SWCD’s Field Technology Day was an example of this effort.
Dr. Hans Kok, Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative coordinator, and Jamie Scott of JA Scott Farms discussed the importance of cover crops, organic matter and non-tillage soil to reducing runoff for local farmers.
A Brush Creek grant from the Great Lakes Commission through the Conservation Action Project helped sponsor the event.
The purpose of the Brush Creek grant is to inform farmers about practices to reduce runoff, said Bert Brown, Williams SWCD district technician.
Two ideas discussed during the meeting were filter strips and cover crops.
“The idea is to keep the phosphorus and nutrients from leaking,” Crawford explained. “There’s been a lot of buzz and what we can do about it in agriculture world.
“We have to include cover crops because it’s a great conservation practice in holding the nutrients on the crops.”
The type of soil used with cover crops matters as well.
Kok and Scott both suggested farmers start using non-tillage soil.
“This soil acts like a sponge. It will absorb the water and nutrients the crop needs in order to grow,” Kok said.
The organic matter in the soil makes a huge difference, Kok said.
“I just want everyone to know that farmers are taking this serious and doing our best to prevent things like this from happening,” Kok said.
Both Kok and Scott agreed that it will take years to solve the algae problem in Lake Erie.
“There isn’t as much patience and we are running out of time,” Kok said. “However, these farming practices will make us a step closer. We just need to take this serious because it is an extremely serious problem.”