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Teaming Up to Clean the Water

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,

"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.

For 20 years, the Conservancy has been working to improve water quality around the Mackinaw River, a central Illinois watershed that flows into the Illinois River, then the Mississippi. And it's the source of water for the city of Bloomington.

The organization's research has shown than traditional soil conservation practices like grassed waterways and stream buffers don't do much to reduce nitrates in drainage from field tiles.

More recent work at a research and demonstration farm in the watershed has shown that when constructed wetlands are placed on about 6% of tile-drained areas, they can remove 30% to 50% of nitrates and 40% to 80% of phosphates from water leaving the farm.

That technology is promising for cleaning up the entire Mississippi River basin but would also represent a huge unpaid set-aside for farmers, even if the cost of putting in the wetland is virtually free.

"We don't want to take that much land out of production," said Paige Mitchell-Buck, a communications specialist for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Illinois. Lowering nitrates in rivers will take a combination of practices, said Buck, who also participated in the Confluence Project discussion. They include installing bioreactors and nutrient management, she said.

Walk said that some wetlands might also be constructed in stream buffers, which also reduces the amount of land taken out of production. And his group is doing more research and field trials to see how cover crops may lower nitrogen export.

Teaming up with NRCS and water departments in Midwest cities is one way for farmers to lower the cost of improving water quality. Another one is a trading program between coal-fired electric power plants along the Ohio River and farmers in 15 counties in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Unlike farmers, coal plants already have limits on nitrogen they can release into rivers. The plants use ammonia in scrubbers to remove sulfur emissions from smokestacks, but are left with another pollutant of waterways. Plants not in compliance with Clean Water Act limits can buy nutrient credits through the Ohio River Water Quality Trading Program, said Brian Brandt, who works on the program for another conservation group, American Farmland Trust.

So far, the group has more than 30 contracts between farmers and power plants. Each farmer has to show that he or she is doing something new to reduce nitrates and phosphates leaving the farm by using such best management practices as fencing to exclude cattle from streams, nutrient management with crops, cover crops, and manure pits. A third party verifies that the new practices are in place and makes annual visits to monitor the farm's changes.

Three power companies have paid for contracts, said Brandt, who also participated in the Confluence Project meeting and farm tours held near Peoria.

"They know exactly what they're getting if they invest in something like this," Brandt said of the power plants using the trading program.

Even those environmental groups that seek to work with farmers, instead of suing or regulating them, are not interested only in public relations for agriculture. It's clear that they expect results, too.

"Outcome matters," said Walk of The Nature Conservancy. "We feel good about doing conservation work, but as [President Ronald] Reagan would have said, 'Trust but verify.' "

Walk agrees with farmers that they don't get credit for all of the environmental improvements they have made. Nor does his group want to see agricultural production reduced in a world with population headed toward 9 billion. Yet, if agriculture can't reduce the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused partly by agricultural nutrients, "we're not going to stop hearing about it," he said.

Farmers, he said, have new partnerships and new friends.

The Ohio River Water Quality Trading Program makes in interesting example of such new partnerships. The groups involved include the Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana Farm Bureaus; Kentucky Corn Growers Association; National Pork Producers; and the Agricultural Retailers Association. They've been joined by The Nature Conservancy of Ohio and the Sierra Club of Ohio and Indiana as well as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Then, this month, when Toledo's water scare added new urgency to water quality, instead of attacking farmers, EDF rolled out an online blog called Growing Returns. It has posts on "how we can meet growing demands for food in ways that improve the natural systems that sustain us," according to Chandler Clay, media coordinator in EDF's Land, Water & Wildlife program.

A recent post on the blog: "Lake Erie’s fertilizer problem isn’t over, but we’re working on it."

Editor's note: Successful Farming magazine and Business Editor and policy specialist Dan Looker compiled this report.

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