By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
OREGON, Ohio — Susan Hedman, U.S. EPA Region 5 administrator and Great Lakes National Program manager, recently announced Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grants totaling $8.6 million awarded to Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.
The goal is to protect public health by targeting harmful algal blooms (HAB) in Lake Erie. The Toledo drinking water ban earlier this year spurred the grants. The Western Basin of Lake Erie is the perfect storm, said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
“The Lake Erie Western Basin much shallower, drains farmland, has a lot of people and a lot of industry,” he said. “So we are much more vulnerable in Lake Erie as a whole and especially the Western Basin. That’s why the GLRI is frankly more important to Ohio, I think, than any other state.”
The GLRI grants are going to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, about $5.9 million; the Ohio EPA, more than $1.5 million; the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), about $807,000; and the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), approximately $360,000.
Hedman and others decided to bring together state and federal agencies at a meeting in Chicago. She wanted to know their immediate needs to avoid another situation like the one that occurred in Toledo. “Often it takes a long time to put a meeting together,” she said. “In this case, we had a conversation about doing this on Friday and the following Wednesday, the heads of every one of those agencies came to Chicago.”
The grants reflect those priorities, Hedman said. “Boots on the ground” was a common theme. In Indiana the grant money will fund two ISDA employees for three years, one in Fort Wayne and the other in Decatur, said Jordan Seger the director of soil conservation for ISDA.
“These two individuals will assist the rest of the Indiana conservation partnership in working with landowners within the Western Lake Erie basin to design and install voluntary conservation best management practices,” Seger said.
Indiana’s On-Farm Network is a program in which small groups of farmers gather data using the same methods, then share that data within their group. “We get these groups together in the winter, and we’ll share all of that information back with them, amongst their group as well as other groups across the state,” Seger said.
The two technicians will expand the On-Farm Network. Currently, the network is focusing on nitrogen management, but in the future the group will evaluate phosphorus management.
“It is all about that voluntary approach to conservation, which we know is demonstrated by the high demand for conservation in east Indiana,” Seger explained.
In Michigan the funding will help to keep four technicians on the ground whose funding was set to expire. The grant will provide incentives to sound nutrient management through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, (MAEAP) verification program, said Jennifer Holton, MDARD director of communications.
“MAEAP is a voluntary, proactive program to mitigate on-farm environmental risks,” Holton said. “It has been used as a national model. MAEAP … was driven by farmers, created by farmers. It includes MDARD, farmers, Michigan Farm Bureau, state and federal agencies, universities, conservation districts, commodity organizations – those kinds of groups.”
Farmers have to complete three steps in becoming MAEAP-verified: attend educational seminars; have on-farm risk assessments; and have the development and implementation of an action plan addressing potential environmental risks.
The MDARD conducts an on-farm inspection to verify program requirements.
The farms must repeat the process every three years.
Craig Butler, director of the Ohio EPA, said the state will continue to work with state and federal partners to improve nutrient management efforts here.
“These federal funds will enable Ohio EPA to measure the success of agricultural conservation practices in Ohio by expanding water-quality monitoring throughout the Maumee River watershed,” he said.
The greatest problem contributing to HABs in the short term is runoff, Brown said.
Everyone – golf courses, lawns, farms and commercial establishments – are a part of that.
“I think in the longer term the greatest problem is climate change,” he said. “We aren’t seeing necessarily more precipitation; we’re seeing more short bursts of torrential downpours ... In these torrential downpours, a large amount of water comes down more quickly. The warming of the planet, which is considered clear by any fair-minded scientists, seems to have affected or will in the future certainly affect algal blooms in the Western Basin.”
The Lake Erie shoreline in the United States and Canada is about 871 miles long. Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline is about 312 miles, comprising 35 percent of the total. Michigan’s Lake Erie shoreline is about 54 miles, 6 percent of the total, and Indiana has no Lake Erie shoreline but water drains from the state, across Ohio into the lake.