Sandusky, Ohio and Chesapeake Lessons: It was dark as I drove into the roller coaster capital of the world – Cedar Point amusement park on the shores of Lake Erie. There were life-size mummies, monsters, goblins and witches all over the place. There was one Frankenstein looking monster with Donald Trump hair. “Oh, I get it. They decorated for Halloween”, I thought.
I had to laugh, here I was entering a conference about water quality in the Great Lakes surrounded by roller coasters and haunted creatures.
One of my long time mentors, Verna Harrison, asked me to help her address a group of people in the Great Lakes region on the benefits of having a regional plan for clean water like we have in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It was the 12th annual conference of the “Great Lakes Coalition”.
Talk about scary things, Toledo, on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie had the toxic algal bloom in 2014 that shut down the city’s water supply for three days and Flint, Michigan still has lead poisoning from their drinking water infrastructure.
This place, the Great Lakes has certainly had its roller coaster rides and haunts surrounding its water.
The Chesapeake Bay, on the other hand, has had a steady albeit slow, journey to being restored. We have a regional plan to restore the Bay and the streams that feed it. It’s called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint or the Chesapeake TMDL. According to the EPA, blue crabs are up 92% from last year, water clarity is the best it has been in fifteen years, dead zones are shrinking, all the Bay states except Pennsylvania are on track to meet their 2017 TMDL nutrient and sediment reduction targets.
Sharing Chesapeake Lessons with Great Lakes
I was on a panel, along with Cassandra Pallai, Geospacial Project Manager with the Chesapeake Conservancy, Verna Harrison, Principal, Verna Harrison Associates, LLC and Jeff Corbin, former EPA Senior Advisor to the Administrator for the Chesapeake. We were there to discuss Lessons from the Chesapeake.
From an agricultural standpoint, what could I share with the group assembled in Sandusky? I thought long and hard and came up with four: Our plan, the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working, make nutrient management simpler, verify cover crops via remote sensing, and invest in buffers and buffer maintenance.
The Number One Lesson: The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working
Our number one lesson for the group was that the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working. Our Bay is improving. We have reduced nutrients in the Bay in half since 1983; despite the fact our population as increased 30%. That is quite an achievement.
There are many reasons for this. Waste water treatment, Best Management Practices on farmland, oyster restoration, air pollution reduction, reductions in phosphorus from laundry detergent and lawn fertilizers, people doing their part, I could go on and on.
The river that flows through our farm is a tmdl stream and we are in the Chesapeake Bay tmdl as well. These designations have brought program funds into our watershed to help farmers install needed BMPs like cover crops, crop rotation to perennials and riparian buffers. Because of these programs our farm now produces food and clean water; something we are very proud of. These programs created jobs for fence builders, excavation companies, tree planters and other contractors.
Those of us in the environmental community think our progress is woefully too slow but the fact is, we are and have been improving the streams and waterways of the Bay steadily and slowly ever since we started the journey in the late 60’s.
For my part of the panel, I presented the following additional lessons that I think we, in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, could improve on.
Make Nutrient Management Simpler.
Chesapeake farmers have greatly improved the use of nutrients on their land and we have developed programs to transport poultry litter from areas with too much of it to areas that need it as fertilizer. But when it comes to phosphorous (P), it’s gotten too complicated and we have not done enough.
We have built billion dollar nutrient management bureaucracies, created phosphorous indexes and management tools that hardly anyone understands, and cut down millions of trees to produce plans that few farmers use. Putting research dollars into figuring out how we can keep applying phosphorus to soils already saturated with it is a waste of time and money that avoids the inevitable: if the soil is saturated with P, don’t apply anymore; Period, with a capital P.
We should invest program dollars in bigger and better P (manure) transport to areas that need it. Phosphorus is a macronutrient in great demand. There are more acres of farmland that need P than ones that have too much.
We also need to begin using crops to remove P from soils saturated with it. Call it agronomic phosphorus extraction from soils or APES for short. (What an acronym? I could not let that one go.) Many say this form of P extraction from the soil, using crops, would take 30 to 100 years. Okay, when do we start? Or do we just keep adding phosphorus at crop uptake levels?
Cover Crops Work but Make Verification Simpler
Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are planting cover crops like nowhere else. In most areas in Virginia for example, cover crop acres reach 90% of row-crop acres. This is wonderful and reduces both soil erosion and nutrient runoff. Sadly, I was told that the best cover crop county in the Great Lakes region is at best 5%.
Virginia’s cover crop program is a huge success but wastes money in verification and we’ve made to too complicated. To verify that a farmer has planted a cover crop in Virginia’s cost share program a government employee has to drive around in their government vehicles to verify when the crop was planted and if and when the crop was harvested or killed. The programs even dictate what seeds the farmer can use as a cover crop. Most, if not all of this “on the ground” verification could be done via remote sensing and save a lot of time and money.
To streamline the process, just let farmers know that their row-crop acres need to be 100% covered by December 1st. Farmers, I guarantee, will figure out how to get there. We don’t need to dictate what seeds they use, or when they have to plant it.
Riparian Forest Buffers Work but Need Maintenance.
Streams flowing through a forest buffer are two to eight times more capable of processing in-stream pollutants than streams flowing through grassed buffers. That’s because leaves from native trees feed the bugs that eat the pollution. This empirical data comes to us from the Stroud Water Research Center.
Investing in trees along streams makes sense and Chesapeake farmers have planted thousands of acres of riparian forest buffers. To assure success and improve the marketability of these nutrient-filtering carbon sinks, we need to invest more in maintaining these areas. One can’t just plant the trees and walk away expecting a healthy forest in ten years.
A Regional TMDL is working in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and it can work in the Great Lakes
The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working. The Bay is getting better and so are the streams that feed it. People from the Great Lakes are in great need of improved nutrient management, cover crops, and forest buffers. They can look to the Chesapeake Bay watershed for a path forward.
Thanks for sharing. I agree native forested riparian buffers and improving soil health (cover crops and Notill) will give us clean water while building soil. Of course, this is with no more chemicals. We do need to simplify the process.
Great stuff Bobby! I have always believed in the concept of “starting now” even with small increments of annual improvement. Just think, that if back in the 70’s when we started discussing auto gas mileage, that we set a goal of only two mpg per year for 40 years, where we would be today. I also like your comments on regulatory ineffiencies. Yes the cover crop scenario is a good example, but we should really look at how complicated the exclusion fencing program is. Defineyly scares away a lot of folks! Too bad.
Scott, thanks for your “spot on” comments.
Great work Bobby! The points you make seem so “common sense”. Hopefully the folks in the Great Lakes region will be able to learn from the presentations of you and your colleagues. We know that your approach is reaping huge benefits for the 1200 acres of Cool Spring Farm and the monks of Holy Cross Abbey. Cattle have been excluded from a first order stream and 3 miles of The Shenandoah River. The buffers, habitat corridors, and native tree plantings are making beautiful progress. Thanks for your hard work and perseverance!
George, you are too kind. Good to hear from you!
Thanks as always, Bobby, for your indefatigable (whew!) work on behalf of our land and water.
I wonder how many of your readers own land which runs off into streams and rivers which they do not farm in the traditional sense. We have 30 acres of “wildlife farm” on which we never spray chemicals and use only topical glyphosate on the cambium layer of felled atrocities such as Ailanthus. By planting native trees, shrubs, forbs and grasses we never need to “improve the soil” except occasionally with compost. How can we influence other landowners to consider doing the same?
Carol, thanks for your comment. I think we need to keep pushing the awareness/education button a lot. Maybe with a hammer sometimes.
Cool opportunity! I didn’t know about the Stroud research on riparian buffers; I hope the best for Great Lakes and their communities. 🙂 Glad you’re well, Bobby!
Natalie, good to hear from you! Thanks for your comment.
I like the way you communicate and I am sure the folks in Ohio were grateful for your presentation. Thank you for reminding us to thoughtfully simplify life for the long term rewards while we confirm and enjoy the short term rewards. Makes me giddy about the future.
Nan, thanks for stopping in and posting a comment. Good to hear from you.
Great piece! And I am glad you were part of the briefing team.
I think that there are three aspects that need to be explicit:
1) In the Chesapeake Bay, we are moving towards restoration of water quality in what amounts to a bath tub with a very small overflow valve. We are working in one generation to overcome the cumulative impacts of 350 years of human settlement and pollution, which requires a high level of participation and cooperation over five states and the District of Columbia.
2) you and others working on stream and river watershed management have been brilliant in stay focused on the local benefits of the investment in conservation, riparian buffers and better agricultural management—the local benefits are critical to sustaining the participation in the larger regional effort; and,
3) We have to embrace the fact that ultimately this requires participation of huge percentage of residents and landowners—so there has to be broad acceptance of the goals and the programs that implement the goals.
At PEC we track the results of voluntary participation in the nine counties where we work most intensely. At last check, through 2015 the voluntary conservation easements have helped conserve from development 182,000 acres of prime soils, 182,000 acres of forest, and 1600 miles of riparian buffers.
The programs that support these voluntary programs, providing incentives to encourage these practices, are under scrutiny from the state legislatures and local governments in tough fiscal times. We need broad support for the goals and the programs equivalent to other critical public services, such as roads, schools and libraries.
And we need the urban and suburban communities in the region to support the investment in the rural areas as part of the broader effort.
Chris, thanks for your well thought out comments. Agreed, Agreed, Agreed.
Bobby: An excellent presentation! It highlights several important points about ecological research and action: We all must think large scale (i.e., watershed and beyond). We must also think long-term (i.e., decadal or more) and we all must think of ourselves as part of the solution. Thank you for your outstanding conservation efforts on behalf of us all!
Bruce, thank you so much for your comment and for reading the post. You are spot on!
Its amazing that there are bodies of water that are that much worse than the Chesapeake Bay. Growing up by the bay we always heard about how we needed to “Save The Bay”. Its a great accomplishment that the Chesapeake Bay can now be an example for other bodies of water like the great lakes, who still have a long way to go in their remediation and conservation practices.
Sean, thanks for stopping in and posting your comment. Indeed, our plan is a sterling example for the rest of the world.
My Friend, Bobby–
If it were only so simple as a “passing” a bureaucratic TMDL…
Having lived and worked as a resource conservation professional (for the same agency you worked for)in the Great Lakes Basin and the Ches Bay for a few decades, let us not forget the following facts/questions:
-A large portion of the Great Lakes Basin (watershed is in Canada)–and what is their commitment to WQ conservation measures?
-Some of the soils in the US portion of the watershed have the highest clay content and naturally occurring phosphorus levels of any place on Earth.
-Why are the Land Grant Universities still recommending the application of fertilizer when the soil test are already off the scale?
-Why are urban/suburban landowners in the watershed applying 10X the fertilizers to green their lawns vs. farmers?
Test question: How much of the World’s freshwater is in the Great Lakes?
-Should we consider other “tools” for improving WQ?
-Let us not forget….we can treat every agricultural acre in a watershed with every currently known BMP….the fish are still dead and the aquatic life is still deteriorating…what next?
Bruce, wow, thank you for your great comments. All very valid and I agree with you for the most part. Passing a tmdl is just a beginning. I have been involved with many tmdls and they always involved the stakeholders, in fact, they don’t work without stakeholder input. Canada signed an agreement (I’ll bet you were there for the signing) “Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement” in 1972, which was amended in 82, 87 and 2012. Here’s the link to it:
I suspect that agreement is similar to all the failed agreements we signed in the Chesapeake Bay. We never reached any of the goals. But now we have two-year milestone targets and backstop measures.
I do have some questions as well. Has there been any talk of “buy outs”? If the soils are so saturated with Phosphorus, and nothing works to extract it (too many tile drains), how about an offer to put the acreage in CRP or buy out the land as we did with dairies back in the 80’s?
The land grant universities should not be recommending more P….eerrrgg.
Fertilizer P has been banned in lawn fertilizer at least here in the Bay, and turf professionals now have to be certified in nutrient management.
I agree, all tools should be on the table.
Finally, Bruce, if the fish are still dead and the aquatic life is still deteriorating, we did not finish the job. Or, as you taught me long ago, we have to keep vigilant and maintain what we applied. We still have to maintain bridges and repaint the house…
Conservation is never finished. It’s like farming, it’s never finished.
I believe the people of the Great Lakes can solve their problems but it will take leadership at all levels, cooperation, and involvement by all, including the farmers.
Oh, the Great Lakes has one-fifth of the world’s fresh water.
Wow, this post really brought back some memories.
Memory 1 as a lad of about 8 my grandparents, who lived in NW Ohio took me and my cousin to Cedar Point. We swam from a nice beach onto Lake Erie. In a few moments we were surrounded by hundreds or thousands of dead fish. It was my first personal encounter with the consequences of large scale nutrient pollution.
Memory #2 fast forward 35 years when I brought former Virginia Governor Herald Balinese to Louisiana to talk with a Federal-State- Tribal Task Force out lessons from the Bay program we hoped could guide development of a Plan to abate the huge Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. An Action Plan was developed by a dozen State Ag, Natural Resources and Environmenta secretaries and their Federal counterparts along NOAA, Interior, and others. It was submitted to Congress late in the Clinton Administration. Very little funding was requested or appropriated for its implementation, but the Task Force still meets.
Ten years later, I learn that Bruce Julian, with whom I worked on several projects while he was at USDA and I was at EPA, is my neighbor on the Northern Neck and I am appointed to a Chesapeake Bay Advisory Committee on which Verna Harrison and other excellent representatives throughout the watershed serve.
Many dedicated and talented people have been working for a long time to address nutrient pollution in lakes, estuaries, and the Gulf of Mexico. Many strategies and practices which are effective in reducing this pollution have been developed. But we need stronger laws and additional resources to turn the corner. The last thing we need is to define federally protected waters so as to remove a significant portion of them from protection!
I’m glad you found this post. I worked with BJ during my career with NRCS, what a small world. He was very well liked and remains active with the NWC. I also worked with Verna as you can tell. I agree that there are many talented and dedicated water quality people in many agencies. Unfortunately, political appointees and misguided administrations can put a big damper on much-needed work. Thanks for all your work as well.
Dear Bobby — Thank you for taking your time to fit travel to Ohio into your busy schedule. I have heard many positive comments from those in the audience at the conference about the content of your remarks, and of course, about the wonderful way you have of presenting that content. Best, Verna
Thanks so much Verna. Let me know if I can be of further service.
It is important that you brought up the fact that using phosphorous uptaking cover crops will take too long to see results in our lifetime… but so what?! Like you stated, shouldn’t we do something different even if it takes a long time to manifest? Our society definitely is short sighted in our goals. We are always trying to cut down as much time spent on a project as possible to get it done, but nature does not work this way, neither should we.
I love that your articles and blog posts are always uplifting Professor W., I think it is important to our environmentalist spirit to understand that everything is going to be ok and we are making progress… even if it is small.
Keep up the good work!
Joel, thanks for your very kind words and taking the time to post your comment.