Last weekend, I attended a daylong workshop on water nutrient management at Maumee Bay State Park. The event was a follow-up to a weeklong session I attended last spring, with an organization called the Insititutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.
A half-dozen speakers presented me with enough facts for a half-dozen stories. I doubt that I write that many, at least for a while, but a couple are for sure in the works.
Meanwhile, one of the things that stands out to me most is the need for “balance.” It’s a key word for the Maumee River Watershed, which drains 4.5 million acres of farmland into Lake Erie. And it’s a key word for Lake Erie, which provides drinking water to 11 million people, millions of dollars in recreation, transportation and a rich and important ecosystem.
We need agriculture, drinking water, transportation and even recreation, to all be strong and co-exist.
One of the speakers, Doug Busdeker, area manager for The Andersons, commented on what would seem to be an easy answer: Just take phosphorus out of fertilizer. But it’s not that simple.
As Busdeker pointed out, phosphorus is one of the 17 essential elements that a plant needs.
“The reality is we can’t take it out of the system,” he said. “If we take it out of the system then we’ll have inferior crops or we’ll reduce production.”
As a major supplier of fertilizer in Ohio and the Midwest, the Andersons are pushing the biggest effort for balance: The 4-Rs of Nutrient Management.
Those include applying the right nutrients at the right time, the right source and at the right rate. You can’t get anymore balanced than that.
But one of the things that struck me is that researchers and farmers aren’t looking for perfect.
Jeff Reutter, of Ohio State University’s Stone Lab, said people often think of clear lakes as the ideal.
But, a nutrient-free, clear lake isn’t’ the goal if its users want to see fish and aquatic life.
“We’re not going to make Lake Erie look like that and quite frankly we would be really upset if we did,” he said. “It would not be the Walleye Capital of the World if it looked like that.”
In the evening, I spent some time walking the two miles of boardwalk that extended through some restored marshland in the bay. Most of that ground used to be farmed, from what I was told, but state conservationists, including the Nature Conservatory, have worked to restore the marshes.
They have plans to restore even more and its easy to see why.
The marshes provide a natural barrier to pollutants and nutrients that would otherwise directly enter the lake. They also provide an important place for wildlife, and perhaps lastly on the list, a place for recreation and bird watching.
Bill Stanley of the Nature Conservancy, said wetlands have a huge potential in helping reduce nutrients entering the lake, by as much as 20-50 percent.
The conservancy is actively working to restore acres of wetlands coastal wetlands along Lake Erie, with the goal of restoring many more.
It will mean giving up some farmland, but for a bigger gain for the environment. Stanley said since the 1860s, more than 96 percent of original wetland habitats along the U.S. shoreline of western Lake Erie have been lost.
Wetlands and farmland
As I walked the boardwalk, I noticed some of the cattails, button bush and other marsh plants that have re-established.
It was encouraging to see the re-growth, which will help filter more of the nutrients before reaching the lake. We don’t want to turn the whole region back to a wetland, but it’s a good example of how balancing agriculture and natural environments makes a difference.
I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about “balance” in the coming months on this issue. It’s the key to protecting the environment, agriculture, recreation and everything else.