The Erie Situation

The Erie Situation

In April, a new documentary called “The Erie Situation” made its debut at the Cleveland International Film Festival and will likely end up on a streaming service near you soon. 

The documentary is billed as “a film about the toxic mix of big agriculture, politics and water security rights.” In case you missed it, they’re talking about you and Farm Bureau, together, in what “The Erie Solution” filmmakers and activist jargon call Big Ag. 

The 2014 Toledo water crisis is featured, including pictures and videos of Lake Erie from close to a decade ago that depict some of the worst water conditions the lake has ever had. The villain, of course, is Ohio agriculture. Every hit job documentary film needs a villain, by the way, and a corresponding “donate” button on its website. 

Typically, a documentary shares multiple angles of a story. “The Erie Situation”, however, is one-sided and would be more suitable for The History Channel. The film skips over all of the advancements being made by farmers in northwest Ohio and beyond. Here is what is really happening and validated through research-based projects.

H2Ohio

Launched by Gov. Mike DeWine in 2019, H2Ohio is a comprehensive water quality initiative that is working to strategically address the numerous water issues that have been building in Ohio for decades. Such problems include harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie caused by phosphorus runoff from farm fertilizer and other sources (see below); failing drinking water, wastewater, and home sewage treatment systems due to aging infrastructure; and lead contamination from old water pipes and fixtures.

After just two years into this voluntary water quality initiative, Ohio agriculture has stepped up in a big way. 

  • Almost 3,000 northwest Ohio farmers have enrolled nearly 2 million acres, or 40% of the Western Lake Erie Basin, into the program. This well exceeds goals the Ohio Department of Agriculture set for the program. 
  • Funding through H2Ohio, which totals a whopping $170 million, is being used by farmers to continue implementation of best management practices and add new proven practices to manage nutrient runoff and prevent algal blooms.
  • In 2021, the program was expanded from the original 14 counties in the watershed to 24, allowing farmers throughout the Western Lake Erie Basin to evaluate their water quality efforts and make the improvements necessary to keep nutrients in the fields.
OACI partnership among ag, conservation, environmental and research communities

Part of the enrollment process of the H2Ohio program is becoming certified with the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative, which is a partnership among 18 agriculture, conservation, environmental and research groups. The mission of OACI is to recognize farmers for their dedication to advancing methods that improve water quality in Ohio and increasing the number of best management practices being implemented on farms.

Based on a newly released third-party assessment report

  • Approximately 64% of the fields surveyed were enrolled in a cost share conservation program previous to H2Ohio. 
  • 83% of the surveyed fields are sampled at least once every three years. Soil testing is an important nutrient management tactic. 
  • 87% of soil sampling is being done using precision techniques via grid or zone methods. 
  • An impressive 40% of fields surveyed had phosphorus applied using variable-rate technology, a method of precision agriculture allowing farmers to only apply what the land needs to grow a successful crop.
Ohio State University research

The Ohio State University is the lead partner on a new five-year, multimillion-dollar pilot watershed project in northwestern Ohio designed to demonstrate that agricultural conservation practices—if used on 70% of the farmland in a watershed, and evaluated on a watershed scale—can help meet Lake Erie’s water quality goals.

Set for the mostly agricultural Shallow Run watershed in Hardin County, which is part of the larger Maumee River watershed and drains into western Lake Erie, the project aims to have farmers adopt conservation practices on 70% of the watershed’s 6,800 acres, which studies have estimated is the level of practices needed to reach Lake Erie’s 40% phosphorus reduction target. Ohio Farm Bureau is one of many farm groups supporting the project. 

Progress proven in the data

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for crop production and continues to be a focus in water quality improvement efforts. The Fertilizer Institute is a consistent source for trusted information and data regarding the use of fertilizers in agriculture. According to its most recent analysis of soil test data: 

  • The number of soil samples tested for Ohio increased from about 69,000 in 2001 to nearly 274,000 in 2020. 
  • Over the same period, the median soil test phosphorus levels dropped from 38 to 26 parts per million (Mehlich 3). From an agronomic perspective, 38% of the 2020 samples were below the critical value of 20 ppm, and 29% were in the range determined to be a level well in line for crop production.

According to Ohio State University Extension Agronomist Greg LeBarge, edge of field phosphorus loss concerns become more significant at around 100 parts per million levels. In 2020, there were 9% of the samples above 100 ppm. From the water quality perspective, someone looking at this will observe that if high values are a problem, simply lower them. However, some perspective on the time it may take for lower soil test values is needed. Each year with no new phosphorus added and through crop removal, soil test values may decline by around 2-3 ppm. So going from 200 ppm to 100 ppm is estimated to take 33 to 50 years.

Other contributors to the problem

Although Ohio agriculture accepts its share of the water quality responsibility, many other factors are adding to the issue. This is why almost all of the efforts being developed at all levels of government are diversified to address other causes, including industrial runoff, sewage overflows like the one occurring in Maumee, Ohio dispersing 150 million gallons of raw sewage into the Maumee River each of the last 20 years, and loss of wetlands and other wildlife habitat. The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law will invest $1 billion into a Great Lakes restoration program, greatly impacting the improvement of Lake Erie on all fronts.

Weather plays an important role

Weather and climate have the biggest role in reducing phosphorus load into Lake Erie. We are seeing a 50% increase in 1 inch or more rains in the last 30 years compared to the prior 30. We are also observing small areas that get huge amounts of rain, (3,4 or 5+ inches of rain in a matter of moments), making it impossible to put any measures in place to keep nutrients in the field. 

Wet conditions are also reducing the time farmers have to be in the field, on average, losing five suitable field days in the spring and five more in the fall. This reduction of time makes it even harder to implement conservation practices that are outside the regular crop rotation. This is an important factor as we feel farmers get a disproportionate amount of the blame considering their conflicting relationship with Mother Nature.

Climate conditions also are playing a role at the lake, such as warming and longer summer seasons which give way to bigger algal blooms and less ice cover and snow, for example.

Less agriculture doesn’t equal less algal blooms

In the extremely wet spring of 2019, nearly 1.5 million acres, or 37.5% of would-be corn and soybean fields in the 24 Western Lake Erie Basin counties went unplanted, according to a poll conducted by Ohio State. As a result, farmers applied historically low levels of nutrients that year. Another Ohio State poll indicated that less than 15% of the normal amount of manure was applied due to the wet conditions. Despite so many tractors and acres sitting idle in the spring, the algal bloom that summer was one of the highest registered blooms since 2002. This clearly dispels the claim that severely restricting current farming practices will stop toxic algae. The proven disconnect between bloom size and nutrient use validates Ohio agriculture’s long-held view that reducing farming’s impact on water quality is a complex undertaking and that less fertilizer and less manure does not automatically equal less bloom.

Have all of these efforts on behalf of agriculture solved the algal bloom challenges in the Western Lake Erie Basin? Absolutely not. As “The Erie Situation” will point out numerous times, there is still more work to be done. Other claims in the film, like saying that progress hasn’t been made by farmers, are unconscionable and without merit. Farmers recognize their role in Ohio’s water quality endeavor and it is time for others who say they care about clean water to begin to pull their weight. 

Image by KGates from Pixabay

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