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Staff with OSU Extension and Stone Lab helped show reporters how netting is done, to study aquatic life.

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to experience it first-hand. I had that experience last week as I set out on an expedition-style journalism event with a dozen other journalists from across the country and Canada.

Our focus was the Maumee River Watershed — a nearly 5 million acre expanse of farmland and urban areas connected to a series of wetlands and streams, and lesser rivers, that eventually feed into the Maumee River and Maumee Bay of Lake Erie. The area has entered the national spotlight in recent years due to nutrient runoff and sedimentation — and the consequential blooming of harmful algae.

When overly abundant, these algae have a negative impact on the fish and plant life in the lake, and can make the water unsafe for human use and consumption.

This is especially detrimental to Lake Erie, which makes up Ohio’s northern border and contains more fish than all the other great lakes combined.

The issue has been making the headlines for at least the past three years, and I’ve heard it come up at just about every major farm meeting I’ve attended in recent months. Usually, the farmers and reporters are gathered in a conference room and someone puts some figures up on a PowerPoint screen, or makes comments from behind a podium.

And there’s nothing wrong with that — but what I saw last week helped me to see the issue — the many issues — with greater insight.

The other journalists and I traveled in a tour bus all along the Maumee River and much of its tributaries, stopping at designated sites to hear farmers, researchers, conservationists, city planners, private business owners and local residents talk about what they’re doing to improve their watershed.

Extensive program

I heard from more than 50 speakers and I now have a stack of information no less than four inches thick — and probably enough content to pull from for the next year or two.

What impressed me the most is how huge this watershed really is and how many people are involved in helping to improve its quality and lessen the pollution. Some of these people know each other and work together as colleagues, and others have never met each other and probably never will.

They all have one very important thing in common — they live and work in the Maumme River Watershed. Each person’s effort is it’s own tributary — emptying into larger tributaries and hopefully forming a confluence of change and improvement that benefits the whole region.

“It (water) is the glue of our area,” remarked Sandy Bihn of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Where we visited

Some of the specific stops on the tour included the Vander Made Dairy — a 1,600-cow farm managed by Lambert Vander Made, in compliance with Ohio livestock regulations and permitting.

Lambert and Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Kevin Elder talked about the importance of regulating water and manure management on farms, and keeping animal waste in the fields and out of waterways.

We also visited the 2,900-acre Mavis Farm, where Scott and Gary Mavis told us about their precision planting practices and fertilizer field maps — as well as the benefits of no-till farming in keeping nutrients in place and reducing water runoff.

At the Allen Dean farm, reporters learned about the benefits of using cover crops — including keeping soil in place and reducing erosion and compaction.

On Friday, June 15, we visited Eagle Marsh in Fort Wayne, Ind. where the Maumee River begins. We learned about the huge “carp fence” installed there, to prevent invasive Asian Carp from entering the Maumee River during high water events.

Later that morning, we visited The Andersons — a $4.5 billion grain and fertilizer company with six different divisions. Speakers there talked about the importance of proper fertilizer application — the right time, right place, right method and rate.

In the afternoon, we traveled to downtown Toledo where we learned about municipal efforts to control runoff on sidewalks and roads, and to separate the city’s storm water system from the sanitary sewer water system.

George Robinson, director of the Toledo Waterways Initiative, gave us a rundown of the different projects over the last 10 years. Today the city is much more prepared to handle heavy volumes of rain and storm water with less contamination and overflow.

But I liked Robinson’s honesty: “As an engineer, you cannot out-design God.”

It was an encouraging trip and a good time to interact with reporters from different backgrounds concerned about the same issues. The event was sponsored by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources and funded by some generous donors and foundations.

The organization’s president — Frank Allen — remarked that the work being done in the region “is a system.” And I couldn’t agree more, because there are just so many things being done by so many people, on so many levels — that ultimately determine the quality of the watershed and the life within.

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties.
Chris Kick
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