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Farmers make progress in improving water quality, but much work remains

Patrick Cooley, The Columbus Dispatch on

Published in Business News

"We have ground that drains in the Auglaize River, which ends up in Lake Erie," he said.

Planting crops without disturbing the soil - thereby keeping nutrients in place - is also common in Ohio. Kenton farmer Paul Ralston said his family adopted the practice in the 1990s.

"We're not strictly no-till," he said, "but we don't do full tillage ever."

Money is a barrier. Grants can offset the cost of conservation practices, but are unlikely to cover all the money growers need to spend, Bowsher said.

"As far as benefits, you can't necessarily put a dollar amount on," he said. "The biggest thing is the conservation aspect."

The number of farmers who use such practices is not entirely clear. Farmers involved in the H2Ohio program have fields that account for around 1 million of Ohio's 4 million acres of farmland. But those figures don't include farmers pursuing conservation on their own.

 

Nutrient levels in the Lake Erie watershed fell in the past two years. Total particulate phosphorus in the Maumee River, for example, dropped from more than 1,600 metric tons in 2019 to less than 1,400 in 2020. And phosphorus levels are projected to drop by half in 2021, according to a recent report from Heidelberg University in Tiffin. Although that figure is still above the university's target of 674 metric tons.

"I would say that, while I think there are a lot of good efforts moving in the right direction, we haven't quite seen the needle moving yet," cautioned Dr. Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg.

Weather can impact nitrogen and phosphorus levels, she stressed. Low phosphorus levels in the Lake Erie watershed are partially attributable to low rainfall in recent years, according to Heidelberg.

"When we were developing the targets for Lake Erie, the concern was we didn't want the extremes to have big influence over interpretations of data," Johnson said.

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