Multistate effort under way to help Lake Erie water

Columbus — An interesting success story is unfolding. It is a collaborative approach to addressing water concerns in Lake Erie, according to Jason Weller, chief of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“It is about three states coming together – Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana – and helping to lead, through their state agencies’ soil and water conservation districts,” Weller said. “But it is also farm organizations like Ohio Farm Bureau, the Corn Growers Association, and conservation organizations coming to the table.”

The NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program asks partners to propose to NRCS what they want to do, Wells said. NRCS held the first signups last year and awarded the funds in January.

“It (the Lake Erie project) was the top award in the whole nation,” Weller said. “We had over 100 projects across all 50 states. The No. 1 project was Lake Erie. The project was focused on the western basin of  Lake Erie and the drainage from the southeast corner of Michigan.

“The majority of the watershed is in Ohio and a little bit of eastern Indiana,” Weller said. “What was exciting to me was that you had three states – their departments of agriculture, soil and water conservation districts, the farming associations, and conservation groups – they designed the project.”

The multistate project includes more than 40 collaborating public and private sector organizations with representation from Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, as well as nonprofit entities, universities, and private sector businesses. The NRCS funding was $17.5 million, and these organizations came up with an additional $28 million in matching funds for programs. The goal is to help in the reduction of phosphorus and sediment and to improve water quality, according to the Ohio DNR.

Project partners suggested using NRCS conservation practices and innovative demonstration practices for which farmers may apply through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

“I am excited by the fact that this is a collaborative approach that is in part the producers at the table helping to lead,” Weller said. “This isn’t some federal mandate that is being pushed upon them. This is a truly grass-roots approach.”

The approach is timely in reducing concerns about blue-green algae that has impacted people around the lake, he said.

The effort focuses on the 855,000 acres that have been identified as the most critical areas to treat within the larger 7-million-acre watershed. 

“We put in place the practices – the tillage, manure management, the fertilizer application practices, buffers, if you have underground tile systems, putting in drainage water-management structures, and other things to address the outflow from the tile lines,” he said.

Agricultural producers in the area have been proactive in dealing with the water quality issues, but now it is time to take management to the next level, Weller said. Producers are encouraged to come to their USDA service center so representatives can help them improve their management while being sensitive to their bottom line, Weller said.

Informational brochures will be distributed to raise awareness of this important multi-year project and encourage farmers and landowners to participate in the new conservation program. Agricultural producers in the WLEB are eligible to apply at wleb.org, or they can visit their local USDA service center.

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