After Algae Boom, Farmers Look to Clean Up Lake Erie

  • Algae rings a boat docked off Gibralter Island in Lake Erie, September 21, 2011. Photo: Jeff Reutter

July 10, 2015

Ohio has gotten a lot of rain this June—four more inches than average.

On his farm near Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo, farmer Kris Swartz gazes out over his fields where the yellowing tops of corn stalks are barely visible above sheets of standing water. It's a daunting sight, but Swartz has reason for optimism. Standing with him in his equipment shed to escape the rain are about 50 new partners from three states.

The partners are with a new joint venture between Ohio, Michigan and Indiana called the Tri-­State Western Lake Erie Regional Conservation Partnership Program and have come together to ramp up the fight against Lake Erie algae. The biggest weapon in the program's arsenal is a five-year, $17.5­-million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant will pay farmers to try new land management practices aimed at reducing phosphorus run­off from the western Lake Erie basin.

Terry Cosby, one of the partners and the Ohio state conservationist from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, says the new funding—this year's single largest federal conservation grant—should allow the group to improve farming practices on about half a million acres around western Lake Erie. The group hopes improving practices to reduce phosphorus runoff is the solution to curbing algae growth in Lake Erie.

“The things that we're already doing, they are working,” Cosby says. "But we need them on a bigger scale.”

Blue-green algae on Lake Erie, September 3, 2009. Photo: Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Blue-green algae on Lake Erie, September 3, 2009. Photo: Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Ohio, with the largest acreage in the basin, will get about $12.25­ million of the grant, Michigan about $3.35 million, and Indiana $2.1 ­million. Farmers can start applying now for incentives that pay up to 90 ­percent of the cost for pilot projects. Cosby says he hopes to bring multiple projects to the same fields.

“They all work together, in conjunction, so we don't want to see you just do one. So if you're going out and do no-till or do conservation tillage, cover crop, controlled drainage—we want to see all of those things on the same field,” Cosby says.

Michigan has recently re­authorized funding for its nutrient conservation program through 2021. Indiana has also committed to work with farmers to curb nutrient run­off in nine counties along the Maumee River. If the program meets its Lake Erie protection goals, the USDA may consider another round of funding in five years.

For Wood County farmer Greg Lake, the money will be especially welcome for planting now-sodden acres in cover crops this summer to keep nutrients in place.

“A lot of farmers are asking what are we going to do with these open acres, so now knowing there are some programs—especially with commodity prices as low as they are right now, this is not going to be a banner year for farmers,” Lake says.

It may not be a banner year for Lake Erie either. Recent algae forecasts predict blooms to rival those that shut down Toledo's drinking water last year. But Steve Shine, who manages conservation programs at the Michigan Department of Agriculture, is looking ahead.

“It'll take time to restore Lake Erie's water quality. We all know that. It didn't happen overnight, it's not going to get fixed overnight. But we have the right team in place to get it done. And a little rivalry is a good thing among the three states. And we are up to the challenge."