Expert: Farming changes needed to reduce Lake Erie algae

Runoff from agricultural fertilizer is increasing the amount of phosphorus in western Lake Erie, which the algae blooms need to grow

TOLEDO - The water crisis in Toledo is no surprise to Dr. Laura Johnson, a water quality scientist at Heidelberg University in Tiffin.

â??It seemed like it was a bit inevitable that this was going to happen, that the drinking water was going to be affected at some point,â?? Dr. Johnson told NBC 24.

The lack of surprise is because late summer algal blooms that produce the microcystin toxin have become an almost annual event in the shallow waters of western Lake Erie. And Dr. Johnson has been noticing an increase in a key element needed for the algae to grow.

â??The past 20 years or so, weâ??ve been seeing pretty sharp increases in dissolved phosphorus. So it appears these blooms are highly related to dissolved phosphorus.â??

The increase in dissolved phosphorus has been routinely measured on the Maumee River, which eventually feeds into western Lake Erie. And according to Johnson, the majority of the algae related phosphorus can be traced back to agricultural fertilizer applied on farms across northwest Ohio, northeast Indiana and southeast Michigan.

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â??Fertilizer tends to be broadcast on the surface of farm fields. And I think thatâ??s part of our issue,â?? said Dr. Johnson. â??Weâ??re not getting that fertilizer into the soil and mixing it really well with the soil like we used to back in the early 80s.â?? Dr. Johnson added the change in application could be partially attributed to the increase in corporate farming.

But the problems related to the high phosphorus levels and subsequent algae blooms are solvable, according to Dr. Johnson. She said scientists are continuing to study exactly how the phosphorus gets from farm fields into local creeks and rivers and eventually into Lake Erie. As part of the solution, Dr. Johnson recommends area farmers practice the Four Râ??s:

1. Right source: applying the appropriate fertilizer needed

2. Right amount: Dr. Johnson encourages farmers to get their soil tested in order to determine how much they need to apply

3. Right place: this refers to getting the fertilizer deeper into the soil, so that itâ??s less likely to runoff.

4. Right time: Dr. Johnson says farmers should apply the fertilizer as close to planting as possible

Along with the Four Râ??s, Dr. Johnson says scientists are working on ways to create healthier soil that contains more organic material. She says this method creates a spongier soil that will absorb fertilizer better, compared to the clay like texture found on many area farms that are more prone to runoff.

Dr. Johnson told NBC 24 that the majority of farmers sheâ??s interacted with are open to the new recommendations.

â??They donâ??t want to be the cause of the problem. Farmers consider themselves stewards of the land. And so they want to do whatâ??s right. I think the issue that we have is making sure that weâ??re giving very clear guidelines as to what can be done to help, and getting it to the people who do the work,â?? said Dr. Johnson.

We also asked her about the dumping of raw sewage into Lake Erie, another source of phosphorus. According to Dr. Johnson, raw sewage dumping only contributes about 5% of the total phosphorus content in western Lake Erie.