The algae bloom crisis challenges agribusiness to change as toxins rise in Lake Erie


This satellite image of the Lake Erie algae bloom shows the extent of a massive bloom that broke records in 2011.

A modern tile drain pipe coming out of a field in Lorain County and draining directly into a local waterway.  They underly most Midwest farm fields, from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast and are considered a major national source of run-off pollution.

Karen Schaefer / Eye on Ohio

A modern tile drain pipe coming out of a field in Lorain County and draining directly into a local waterway. They underly most Midwest farm fields, from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast and are considered a major national source of run-off pollution.

The tilling and fertilizing practices of Ohio farmers have been named the culprit in causing toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie and other waterways in the state. But the pace of reforming those practices has been slow and has public officials and farmers wondering how to hasten it.

Solutions so far have favored large farm businesses that can afford the new equipment for dispersing chemical fertilizers. They’ve also favored the fertilizer industry.

Compounding the challenge of solving the algae bloom problem has been the difficulty in documenting that problem. Because of proprietary information laws, data is hard to come by as to how many farmers are using the proper procedures to reduce or prevent the run-off of phosphorus from fertilizers into nearby waterways. Phosphorous produces deadly algae blooms that deprive lakes of oxygen, create dead zones, kill fish and release toxins which can pose threats to human health.

Anecdotal evidence and estimates from farm industry officials suggest a relatively small percentage – perhaps as low as 10% – of farmers are using fertilizing practices that could help reduce phosphorous run off into Lake Erie and other bodies of water in the state.

One Ohio legislator is proposing a bill to require mandatory training in specific tilling procedures, but questions abound about how many farmers would implement the procedures and whether the bill should carry fines for those who don’t follow them.

This satellite image of the Lake Erie algae bloom shows the extent of a massive bloom that broke records in 2011.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

This satellite image of the Lake Erie algae bloom shows the extent of a massive bloom that broke records in 2011.

The new actions to bust algae blooms are occurring as new evidence about the deadliness of the toxins in Lake Erie has emerged.

A long-held practice comes under scrutiny

Since the 1980’s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had recommended “no-till” farming to reduce soil erosion and loss of soil fertility. No-till involved planting crops directly into the stubble of last year’s crops without plowing first. It helped reduce the amount of solid phosphorous-based fertilizer, which clings to soil, from flowing into Lake Erie.

The changes in farming methods, along with the 1977 United States ban on phosphorous in detergents and upgrades in sewer systems by local governments, succeeded in reducing phosphorous levels in the lake and a prior era of algae blooms gradually disappeared. But they re-merged in 1995 and worsened throughout the next decade, leaving scientists scrambling to figure out why.

A 2010 study by the Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force, a group of scientists from several state agencies, said farms in northwest Ohio – not pollutants from cities – were the primary culprit for releasing excess phosphorous into the lake’s western basin.

Task Force Final Report April 2010 [pdf]

The geographic source of Lake Erie’s problem is the Maumee Basin. Algae blooms are forming at the mouth of the Maumee River which flows from Fort Wayne, Indiana east through millions of acres of cropland in northwest Ohio and is the largest tributary into the Great Lakes.

“When 80-percent of the land use in a watershed is agriculture, it’s almost inevitable that a major source of the phosphorus loading is going to be from the agricultural fields,” said Peter Richards, a scientist with the Lake Erie task force and a researcher at the National Water Quality Research Center at Heidelberg University in Tiffin.

“I’m a fourth-generation farmer. Our family has always embraced change,” said Roger Wise, who owns a 750-acre soybean, corn and wheat farm near Fremont in the Sandusky River watershed.

Wise, also president of the Ohio Farmers Union, was discouraged to learn that no-till farming, once thought a best practice, now is considered a problem. The Ottawa-based Ohio Farmers Union represents 5000 family farms in western and central Ohio.

Researchers believe that a new material – dissolved phosphorous – which scientists had never seen until the last few years, is running off farm fields at an alarming rate and is caused by no-till farming.

Richards said that when phosphorus is applied to the surface of the soil and not mixed in by tillage – whether in pellet form as a chemical fertilizer or as liquid manure – it becomes concentrated in the surface layer of the soil. The resulting high concentration of the nutrient on the soil surface in un-tilled fields can lead to runoff of dissolved phosphorus.

Changing tilling practices is a complicated business

To get rid of algae blooms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants farmers to adopt new soil and nutrient management practices, some of which have been developed by the fertilizer industry.

Over the last three years, the USDA and the Fertilizer Institute, an industry trade group, jointly have urged farmers and farming cooperatives to use the ‘4-Rs,” – “ the right fertilizer, at the right place, at the right rate, at the right time.” The 4Rs require the use of a GPS, or global positioning, satellite-based system, for applying nutrients into the soil.

Doug Busdecker, senior manager of Northern Farm Centers for The Andersons Inc., an agribusiness and fertilizer retailer based in Toledo, said the fertilizer industry is trying to help farmers cut back on the use of phosphorous – and is trying avoid government regulation if voluntary reduction in the use phosphorous doesn’t work.

Fertilizer retailers often design the crop nutrient system for farmers; the industry has been using such service contracts as a way to generate revenue outside of fertilizer sales. Customers often are large farms that use GPS and can more easily implement “the 4Rs.”

Stand-alone GPS systems cost about $30,000 each. The systems help farmers locate areas for soil sampling and map farms fields. Mapping crops yields and soil fertility within fields helps farmers use fertilizer only where it’s needed – which reduces overall phosphorous levels. Other equipment could be needed as well for precision fertilizing under the 4R recommendations.

Nearly half of northwest Ohio farmers use certified crop advisors, state-licensed agricultural advisors who provide information on planting and fertilizer use.

Joe Logan, a farmer in Kinsman in Trumbull County, said most certified crop advisors work for local farm supply companies. He said they sometimes make recommendations based more on how much fertilizer they can sell rather than on what farmers really need. Logan believes that practice slowly is changing as fertilizer suppliers focus on selling service instead of products and their desire to head off government regulations increases.

Some farmers and independent crop advisors who are not tied to industry have adopted a wide array of practices thought to reduce phosphorous levels, Logan said, but those practices still are not widespread.

State Sen. Cliff Hite, a Republican from Findlay, in May introduced SB150, which would require all farmers, crop advisors, and retail fertilizer companies to complete 4-R training programs before they apply any fertilizer.

Logan, who previously was director of agricultural programs for the Ohio Environmental Council, a Columbus-based advocacy group, is concerned that the 4R’s certification program requires only a few weeks of training, but no final testing of applicants before certifications are awarded.

Sen. Hite said he’s not sure yet whether the final bill will include penalties or fines against farmers who don’t cooperate to curb their phosphorus run-off. Hite, who conducted public meetings about the bill with farmers around the state this summer, said creating mandates for the agricultural industry is a sensitive topic.

“Allowing it to be just a volunteer program we don’t feel has enough strength,” he said. “By the same token, we don’t want to force the agricultural world to do something that they feel they’re already working towards.”

“It’s delicate,” said Hite. “But we’re going to do something. I’m sure there will be some grumbling from some, but I’m sure some will appreciate what we’re doing. There’s not any entity or a group that’s not going to be part of the discussion.”

Wise of the Farmers Union believes the practices of other algae bloom contributors – such as sewage plants and golf courses – should be studied further, and that practices used by livestock farms also should regulated by Hite’s proposed legislation. Hundreds of smaller livestock operations fall just under the size threshold for state oversight.

Hite said he is not likely to add a provision covering livestock farms to his proposed bill. Nor is the Ohio Department of Agriculture pushing to include smaller farms to those already regulated by the state.

Simple solutions might not be simple for farmers

Another practice that the Ohio Farmers Union, along with government agencies, have recommended to curb phosphorous run-off is changing the time of year when fertilizer is applied – a simple idea but one that for farmers is easier said than done.

Algae thrive on the dissolved phosphorus food source. To reduce the algae, scientists have recommended fertilizing crops in the spring, when plants can better absorb the nutrients, and injecting fertilizer into the soil, instead of broadcasting it on top.

Farmers often have done just the opposite – fertilizing in the fall – in part because of changing weather patterns.

Wet springs have made it tougher for farmers to get into their fields at planting time. Wise said many farmers are buying or leasing more acres to increase their profits and traveling longer distances between fields, so the time they can spend working the fields in the spring is even more limited.

Because the spring season has presented challenges, farmers in recent years have been fertilizing in the fall, even sometimes in mild winters, and spreading the fertilizer on the surface, where it quickly is washed away. The Farmers Union has issued statements on its website and in other venues urging its members to stop those practices.

Tracking the numbers isn’t easy

Though Hite and others see the need for more action when it comes to farming methods, some environmental officials say there’s been progress in the industry.

“Awareness and attitudes in the agricultural community are changing dramatically on these issues,” said Gail Hesse, chair of the Lake Erie Phosphorous Task Force, at a late September meeting for science writers at Ohio State University Stone Lab Research Center and the Ohio Sea Grant Program, funded jointly by state and federal agencies.

But scientists may never know exactly how many farmers are employing new nutrient management practices, because that and other information – such as the type of herbicides farmers are using – are protected by federal law, under a provision that allows the agriculture industry privacy rights over sharing of proprietary information.

Logan said environmental groups and even state officials privately are concerned that this same protection from disclosure of agricultural information would be extended under state law by SB 150. Those groups are reluctant to speak publicly, Logan said, because the farm industry – the largest in the state in terms of revenues – has a long history of privacy protection and strong state and national lobbies.

Richards, of the phosphorous task force and Heidelberg University, said the lack of information about how many farmers are adopting new techniques – and the impact of the new techniques – makes the job of algae bloom scientists more difficult.

“There is a real problem with access to certain agricultural information,” he said. “It hinders our ability to see which farming practice changes work – and which don’t.”

Hesse said she would like to see a better tracking system developed through cooperation between farmers, government and industry. For now, researchers rely primarily on anecdotal evidence about what farmers are doing to improve nutrient management and how many of them are using GPS systems.

“Anecdotally, I would say 10% of farmers are now using GPS,” said Logan.

Though GPS is expensive, as is the cost of hiring a crop advisor or a farm supply company, to “precision-manage” the application of chemicals, Logan and Wise said the costs can be offset by the savings from reducing the use of fertilizers, which can cost as much as $800 an acre.

Logan said a 10% farmer participation rate in precision nutrient management programs equates to about 20% of the Maumee basin’s agricultural land. The question remains whether that’s enough to make the drastic reductions in phosphorous needed to curb Lake Erie’s algae blooms.

Microcystin: toxin from algae poses increasing threat to humans

No one wants to go fishing in water that’s the color and consistency of bright green pea soup and no one wants to swim in water that stinks of rotting algae. But there’s a much more serious component to the algae that’s been forming in huge mats in western Lake Erie in recent years.

This decade’s algae bloom problem has included a blue-green variety called cyanobacteria – which can produce deadly toxins that can damage the livers and nervous systems of fish, pets, livestock and people.

High concentrations of cyanobacteria are deadly. In 1996, 76 patients at a dialysis center in Brazil died from liver failure from the toxin – called microcystin – released by the same cyanobacteria.

Linda Merchant-Masonbrink, Ohio EPA’s inland waterways manager, said the presence of microcystin in Lake Erie is extremely troubling.

“Microcystin is right below dioxin in its relative toxicity,” she said. The U.S. EPA considers dioxin a likely human carcinogen. Microcystin is colorless, tasteless and odorless, and requires chemical testing to detect. It can linger months after an algae bloom is gone.

Despite emerging scientific information about toxicity levels in the new wave of harmful algae blooms, neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued any national health advisories regarding safe or unsafe levels of microcystin. The World Health Organization (WHO) is the only health agency to recommend health and safety guidelines for drinking water from toxins release from algae.

Merchant-Masonbrink says it’s fortunate that, so far, microcystin levels in Lake Erie haven’t reached heights that could cause widespread injury and death. But she’s concerned that day could be coming when more harmful toxin levels are reached, especially if the impacts of climate change further weaken the lake’s ecosystem.

Last month managers at a water treatment plant in Carroll Township in Ottawa County shut down the plant when they discovered levels of microcystin had soared to more than three times the safety threshold of 1 part per billion established for drinking water by the WHO. It was the first time anyone in the state had measured algae toxin levels that high in treated drinking water from Lake Erie.

The residents of Carroll Township were lucky. Water-treatment plant operators there began several years ago voluntarily testing their water, using a protocol created by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

HAB Response Strategy [pdf]

Ohio EPA spokesperson Dina Pierce said testing for algae toxins is not mandated under state or federal law.

Some local municipalities have taken it upon themselves to monitor for such toxins, Pierce said. Columbus and eight other small Ohio communities regularly test their drinking water for high concentrations of microcystin. The city of Toledo in recent weeks approved $1 million to upgrade its water treatment system so that it can safely filter out harmful toxins from algae blooms coming from Maumee Bay.

So far, Cleveland is not testing for algae toxins. It wasn’t until two years ago that algae blooms reached as far east as the central basin of Lake Erie; officials there say they haven’t considered the blooms a major health threat.

The Ohio EPA has said that, based on research and observations in Ohio, standard water treatment seems to remove most algae toxins from drinking water. Ohio’s safe drinking water advisory thresholds are the same as those recommended by the WHO – less than 1 part per billion (ppb) of microcystin.

This harmful algae bloom drifted into a marina in Put-in-Bay in August, 2013, just in time for a major tourist attraction, the re-enactment of the 1812 Battle of Lake Erie.

Karen Schaefer / Eye on Ohio

This harmful algae bloom drifted into a marina in Put-in-Bay in August, 2013, just in time for a major tourist attraction, the re-enactment of the 1812 Battle of Lake Erie.

Lake Erie may prove to be the canary in the coal mine for Great Lakes water quality issues; harmful algae blooms are on the rise in smaller water bodies all around the state. A report by the National Wildlife Federation indicates it’s becoming a national problem as well.

The Ohio EPA this year tested water samples in several Ohio inland lakes and reservoirs, including Grand Lake St. Mary’s near Lima, which has been plagued by algae blooms since 2009. The state spent more than $8 million in 2011 and 2012 to chemically treat the lake, but so far the efforts have been unsuccessful and toxic algae remains.

Tile drains throw another curve into the algae bloom crisis

In spite of all the work that’s been done in the last decade to reduce or eliminate Lake Erie’s algae blooms, scientific questions about additional causes of the problem persist. One is whether Ohio’s – and the Midwest’s – system of using tile drains in farming contributes to the rapid movement of dissolved phosphorous into waterways.

Tile drains are pipes that underlie most Midwestern farm fields several feet below the surface. The drains originally were designed to dry fields as quickly as possible, allowing for earlier planting in the spring. But early 1900’s technology may now be helping to increase the flow of excess nutrients like phosphorous.

Steve Davis, a watershed manager for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the USDA in Lima, is studying whether tile drains could be pulling water – and dissolved phosphorus – into the soil and out into drainage ditches too fast for crops to use it. Davis, under a grant from the Ohio Soybean Council and federal agencies, has been testing the water coming out tile drains at the edges of fields.

A recent study of Columbus-area farms by the Agricultural Resource Service, a branch of the USDA with offices in Columbus, showed a large percentage of dissolved phosphorus indeed was found to be flowing directly out of tile drains.

Davis is hoping that his edge-of-field studies will help determine whether long-adopted conservation techniques like no-till farming really are increasing run-off of phosphorus to Lake Erie – and will help refine changes in land-use management.

There’s hope if government, farmers work together

Local, state and federal agencies in the United States and Canada have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent decades on monitoring and research efforts related to algae blooms.

Jeffrey M. Reutter, director of the Ohio State University Stone Lab Research Center and the Ohio Sea Grant Program, said if the right formulas to correct the problem are found and the agriculture industry adopts appropriate farming methods, it might not take long for Lake Erie to rebound.

“Lake Erie has the shortest [water] retention time of all the Great Lakes, on average about 2.6 years,” said Reutter. “So we could solve this problem in just a few years. Lake Erie was once considered an environmental success story. I think it can be again, if we can continue to work together.”

Wise of the Farmers Union believes that cooperation can happen.

“Farmers want to do the right thing. I think they are trying to do the right thing,” said Wise. “But it will take some time and unfortunately we have to move rather quickly.”

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