Western Lake Erie Basin Watershed Study 5.7

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

When soil washes off a farm field and travels into Bean Creek, the impact is noticed far downstream.

The river sediment produced by any one field might be called negligible, but Bean Creek/Tiffin River drains nearly 200 square miles by the time it reaches Ohio and 777 square miles when it joins the Maumee River near Defiance.

At Defiance, the Maumee has drained 5,545 square miles and when it flows into Lake Erie, the drainage area has reached an impressive 6,600 square miles—an area nearly a sixth the size of Ohio.

The end result is a heavy flow of sediment into Lake Erie—heavy to the extent that satellite photographs shows swirls of sediment-laden water mixing into the bay. The Maumee River Basin contributes an estimated 5 million tons of soil a year to the lake.

This is a large factor in the need to dredge about 850,000 cubic yards of sediment from shipping channels every year.

The problems don’t end there.

Destruction of wetland habitat and removal of forests adjacent to water bodies hastens the runoff and leads to water flow spikes and flooding. Pollutants—primarily from agricultural runoff—degrade water quality and harm fish and wildlife habitat.

The solution adopted by several federal, state and local agencies is to take a comprehensive watershed approach rather than addressing issues on a project-by-project basis with no overall plan. Partnerships were formed among more than 30 groups ranging from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to the City of Toledo, and including the governors of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

“It’s a comprehensive study of the entire Lake Erie Basin,” said Craig Forget of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We’ll try to find out specific needs and opportunities to improve the health of the watershed.”

Last year, communities and organizations were contacted to seek information about water-related concerns.

“The people who know it best are those who live in the watershed,” said Forget, who serves as program manager for the Corps’ Great Lakes Sediment Management Program. “Some watersheds already have groups in place. We might be able to learn from them and get going faster.”

In March 2009, a report will be made to Congress to determine how data collected best fits into national priorities.

“The authority we have is only to study the issues,” Forget said. “We’re not allowed to implement from our findings.”

In order to improve watershed conditions, the first step is to understand the problem, he said, then determine what’s needed for change. After that, local, state and federal resources will come together.

The vast majority of work needed to reduce sediment runoff rests with farmers. The strategic plan estimates the acres of filter strips, riparian [streamside] buffers, grassed waterways, conservation tillage, nutrient and manure management, waste storage structures and pasture systems that will be needed to address resource concerns.

The 10-year plan will require accelerated participation from USDA Farm Bill programs that give financial assistance to farmers for applying conservation practices.

Aside from rural issues, problems also exist with municipal wastewater treatment systems.

“That seems to be a problem throughout the area,” Forget said. “We have to make people realize the importance and explain the benefits.

“It’s a very challenging thing,” he said, noting the enormous drop in federal funding compared to past decades.

Communities were once able to obtain grants for sewer projects that covered a large share of the total cost.

Assessments

In Ohio, the Heidelberg College National Center for Water Quality Research is involved in the project in two ways.

A long-term monitoring program on the Maumee at Waterville provides highly detailed data on nutrient, sediment and pesticide runoff from the majority of the watershed.

Also, funding from the Environmental Defense/Joyce Foundation program is enabling the lab to set up three additional stations, including one on the Tiffin River near Stryker. An automatic sampler was expected to be in place near Stryker by the end of April, said lab director Dave Baker.

A nutrient and sediment station has operated on River Raisin near Ida for years and Baker expects similar water quality conditions on Bean Creek.

The Bean/Tiffin is a high-priority area for sedimentation, said Tom VanWagner of the Lenawee NRCS office. Soluble phosphorus levels are rising, he added, and efforts are underway to reverse the trend.

Critical erosion areas are targeted through the CREP program—taking land out of production—and existing problems are repaired through the EQUIP program by healing washouts, for example.

A survey of tillage practices has given researchers a better idea of what farmers are doing in the fields, VanWagner said, and the Center for Excellence project promotes conservation tillage.

VanWagner expects to see more and more CAFO owners moving away from storing liquid manure in lagoons and instead using methods to separate solids from liquids. By making manure less wet, the chances of manure washing off fields will be reduced.

The Environmental Defense/Joyce Foundation grant program allowed facets of the Lake Erie Basin project to get underway early. [State Line Observer, Feb. 21, 2007].

Steve Davis from the NRCS office in Allen County, Ohio, describes the marrying of private and public parties as a welcomed and innovative approach to tackling  sedimentation problems.

Funding allowed an expansion of the CREP and EQUIP conservation incentive programs on rural lands. Land owners receive payment for installing grass filter strips, reviving wetlands, etc.

Davis is also involved in research looking at new methods for using livestock manure. He recently heard a presentation about bio-char, a charcoal produced from bio-mass including manure that can be used to enrich soil. It’s only in the research and development stage, he said, but a demonstration site is being sought in Ohio.

It often takes some time to examine a situation and determine a course of action, Forget says, but he’s ready to move forward.

“The best time to start is now.”

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