News / USA

US Farmers Work to Curb Lake Erie Pollution

To reduce farm chemical pollution, farmers plant a second quick-growing crop after the harvest in order to reduce erosion. The deep-rooted plants help aerate the soil. (VOA/E. Celeste)
To reduce farm chemical pollution, farmers plant a second quick-growing crop after the harvest in order to reduce erosion. The deep-rooted plants help aerate the soil. (VOA/E. Celeste)
Erika Celeste
Ohio — Lake Erie, the smallest of North America’s five Great Lakes, supplies fresh drinking water to an estimated 11 million people in Ohio, Michigan and southern Ontario province, Canada.

Yet sometimes pollution, both from industrial waste and farm-chemical runoff, leaves large areas of the lake covered in half-meter-thick layers of green slime. Scientists blame the excess phosphorus and nitrates entering the water, which act like fertilizer, for Lake Erie’s algal blooms.

Source of the problem

To find out where these extra nutrients come from, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has been studying data from its network of 14 water-quality monitoring stations installed along the rivers that drain into the Lake Erie basin.  

At one staton, water from the small stream is diverted into a large concrete flume where it is pumped into the testing station.

“We’ll have a sample a day, year round every day so that really pins down what the chemistry is like,” says Dave Baker of Ohio's Heidelberg University, who oversees the monitoring stations for the Department of Natural Resources. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal government’s pollution watchdog, requires point sources, such as factories, to monitor and report their discharges. So Baker is looking for where the other sources of pollution come from.

“If there are problems in Lake Erie, we want to know where it’s coming from and make sure we’re putting resources to remedy the problem in the right place," Baker says. "It’s stations like this that help do that.”

In this case, a primary source of the pollution turns out to be chemical fertilizer that washes off farmland during rainstorms.

No-till farming

Because farmers and ranchers believe fertilizers are essential to high crop yields, they are reluctant to stop using them.
Water filtered through the no-till soil (left) was clearer and had less sediment, than the water that ran off the tilled soil (right).Water filtered through the no-till soil (left) was clearer and had less sediment, than the water that ran off the tilled soil (right).
x
Water filtered through the no-till soil (left) was clearer and had less sediment, than the water that ran off the tilled soil (right).
Water filtered through the no-till soil (left) was clearer and had less sediment, than the water that ran off the tilled soil (right).

However, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service isn’t asking them to abandon farm chemicals, but rather to use them more sparingly so they don’t run off the land when it rains. One way they can do that is to practice so-called no-till farming.

When soil is constantly pounded by the wheels of a tractor and then fluffed up with a tiller, it breaks down the natural bonds in the soil, causing it to become very hard and compact. When that happens, water or fertilizer can’t penetrate the soil, and they run off the land into local waterways and eventually into Lake Erie.

Frank Gibbs, a soil analyst with the US Department of Agriculture, explains that in no-till fields, farmers don’t break up the earth before planting and they follow the same path every time with their heavy machinery. That way, only the pathways, not the seed rows, become compacted.

“We’re using our head to farm rather than a big piece of steel," Gibbs says. "Dragging steel through the ground is not the answer, besides blowing all that diesel in the air.”

No-tilled soil results in greater water infiltration, less runoff, less erosion, and reduced flooding.

“It’s all about water quality and managing water,” says farmer Allen Dean, who has embraced no-till farming.

Yet others remain cautious about making the switch, because tilled soils can take up to five years to regain the ability to absorb and hold water. And many growers lack the specialized equipment they need for no-till farming.

Cover-crop farming 

Another technique for reducing farm chemical pollution of Lake Erie is cover-crop farming. After the harvest, farmers plant a second quick-growing crop to reduce erosion. The deep-rooted plants, such as rye or turnips, help aerate the soil, allowing worms and fungi to work their magic and helping the soil to absorb more water and nutrients.

Dean says it’s discouraging that some of his neighbors don’t yet use these methods, but he notes that government programs are encouraging them to switch.

The USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program has provided about $1.2 million grants to Ohio farmers to help them plant more than 10,000 hectares of cover crops. New machinery is also being developed that allows farmers to plant cover crops between rows of maturing crops.

“We want to make sure we do the best we can do and that our nutrients don’t go to the streams, and rivers and end up in Lake Erie or the Gulf of Mexico or wherever it might be,” Dean says.

By keeping their soils in good condition and reducing fertilizer runoff, Ohio farmers are not only helping themselves, but they are also reducing the threat to the region’s drinking water supply by improving the quality of water running into Lake Erie.

You May Like

Video Experts Warn World Losing Ebola Fight

Doctors Without Borders says world is losing battle against Ebola, unless wealthy nations dispatch specialized biological disaster response teams More

Video Experts: Rise of Islamic State Significant Development in Jihadism

Many analysts contend the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years More

US-Based Hong Kongers Pledge Support for Pro-Democracy Activists

Democracy advocates call on Chinese living abroad to join them in opposing new election rules for their home territory More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearancei
X
Elizabeth Lee
September 02, 2014 8:57 PM
Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearance

Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Experts See Rise of ISIS as Significant Development

The Islamic State’s rise seems sudden. It caught the U.S. by surprise this summer when it captured large portions of northern Iraq and spread its wings in neighboring Syria. But many analysts contend that the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years. VOA's Jela de Franceschi takes a closer look at the rise of ISIS and its implications for the Middle East and beyond.
Video

Video Israel Concerned Over Syrian Rebels in Golan

Israeli officials are following with concern the recent fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces near the contested Golan Heights. Forty-four U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji have been seized by Syrian Islamist rebels and the clashes occasionally have spilled into Israel. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.

AppleAndroid