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Teaming Up to Clean the Water

08/26/2014 @ 8:32am

At the beginning of this month, farmers took another public relations hit when the half-million residents of Toledo, Ohio, couldn't drink their tap water, which was contaminated by a toxin from an algae bloom in the city's water supply, Lake Erie.

Numerous press reports blamed excess phosphorous fertilizer from agriculture as one of the causes of that algae growth. This time, agriculture wasn't being blamed for the death of shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone, or the decline of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, but its effect on people, whose panic buying of bottled water hit stores 50 miles from Ohio's fourth-largest city.

Some environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, were soon quoted in publications like The Hill, which said the groups want "new rules dictating the ingredients in fertilizer, the amount of fertilizer farmers could use, or the places particular nutrients could be applied."

Days later, ag groups tried to show the public that farmers aren't ignoring the issue.

"Ohio farmers have invested more than $1 million of their own money for on-farm research to seek solutions to runoff problems," said a press release from the Ohio Soybean Association and the state's soybean checkoff, the Ohio Soybean Council. "To date, the Ohio Soybean Council has been the largest supporter of this vital work being conducted by The Ohio State University in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The three-year project on northern Ohio farms is capturing and analyzing water at the edge of fields, looking for where nutrients are escaping and possible preventative measures."

Earlier this summer, Ohio's governor signed a new law that ramps up research on the source of phosphorous showing up in Lake Erie as well as requiring one operator on each farm to be certified to apply fertilizer.

"The law has 'teeth' because it will go after bad actors who recklessly apply fertilizer," Ohio's soybean groups said.

What's lost in all of this is that many environmental groups have long been working with farmers and farm organizations to tackle the complex challenge of having both clean water and abundant food.

In July, representatives of several environmental organizations met with a group of farmers in Peoria, Illinois, during a tour of innovative farms sponsored by the Confluence Project, a joint effort of the United Soybean Board and Successful Farming magazine and our website, Agriculture.com.

"We're very much focused on voluntary programs," Jeff Walk of The Nature Conservancy said at the Peoria meeting. "We're not focused on a regulatory agenda."

New programs in the 2014 Farm Bill will make conservation funds available to help tackle water quality, Walk said. And funds from other sources, such as the city of Bloomington, Illinois, could defray all of the initial costs for practices installed on farms to filter nitrates. For Bloomington, which is already bumping up against EPA limits on nitrates in its water supply, it's cheaper to help farmers install reconstructed wetlands than to pay for a nitrate filtration system, Walk said. The cost of removing nitrates with the wetland is about 13 cents per pound vs. 38 cents a pound for removing the nutrient at the water treatment plant.

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