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 British Fighters on Frontline of Islamic State Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Pakistan's Political Turmoil Again Shines Spotlight on Military

Thousands of protesters calling for PM Sharif to step down continue protests in front of parliament, as critics fear political impasse could spur another military coup More

Photogallery Ebola Quarantines Spark Anxiety in Liberian Capital

Food prices rise sharply as residents attempting purchases clash with security forces, leaving one person dead More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid