By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Farm Bureau and 19 other groups in the state have sent letters to thousands of farmers, asking them to voluntarily reduce nutrient runoff on their farm before facing stringent and costly regulations from state and federal officials.
“As a farmer in Ohio you have a significant challenge bearing down quickly. Government, special interest groups, the media and the public all expect you to help clean up the state’s water resources. If farmers don’t do this on their own, there will be federal and state laws and regulations that will mandate how you farm,” the letter stated.
Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Farm Bureau, said there are concerns of state or federal regulations for farmers after Grand Lake St. Marys and the western basin of Lake Erie were shut down in 2011 because of algal blooms. Runoff of phosphorus from manure and fertilizer on farms has been partly blamed for such blooms, which are deadly to other aquatic life.
While such blooms did not occur during the 2012 drought, Cornely said the issue isn’t going away. Because much of the southern state drains into the Ohio River, which goes to the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico, blooms there could mean restrictions here, he said.
The letter calls for immediately reducing nutrient runoff in a way that can be documented, a challenge Cornely admits will be difficult. “We can’t honestly sit here and tell you we know how to fix it,” he said.
Kent Stuckey, president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, admits data collection on farm runoff is in its infancy, but he thinks tracking information will become easier as monitoring tools become more prevalent. Farmers taking action can help the problem now, he said.
“I think we can get a lot done with just voluntary practices,” said Stuckey, who also is a livestock producer. “Farmers are practical. They know they need to take steps to reduce runoff, but they don’t want to do something that may change tomorrow.”
He and Cornely said their groups, as well as others, will be holding meetings throughout the year to help teach farmers about what can be done to avoid the problem. In addition, the groups hope to create a website to aggregate information on the topic to make it easier for farmers.
Cornely said the key is to show farmers are willing to take action, even if it is unlikely the benefits will be immediate.
“This isn’t something that is going to go away overnight. It’s an issue building in some cases for more than 100 years,” he said.
The letter also stated “farmers must proactively solve this challenge. There’s more at risk than higher costs of regulation. Unless farmers make significant reductions in nutrient runoff, they will increasingly take the blame for phosphorus loading and toxic algae.”
The farming community isn’t the only group shouldering the blame. According to various news sources, nitrates and pesticides from municipal wastewater treatment plants and farms account for most of the toxic surface water discharges to the Great Lakes Basin. Nitrates were also discharged by primary metals facilities, such as iron and steel mills and smelters, and food and beverage manufacturers.
Mark David, a professor of biogeochemistry from the University of Illinois, is researching options for reducing nitrate levels. They include valves and beds of wood chips inside the tiles, as well as restoring wetlands, which filter pollution naturally.
“It’s not the farmers’ fault,” he said, “but there’s little incentive for farmers to reduce their nitrate output. There’s a fundamental problem in the whole system if we really want to reduce nitrate and phosphorous loss from the system.
“Everything’s been voluntary up to this point, and that hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”