Michigan farmers encouraged to help fight water pollution

BY STEVEN MAIER
Capital News Service

LANSING — Federal officials are launching a two-year study to determine the best ways to convince farmers, including those in Michigan, to fight water pollution in the Great Lakes region.

The pollution has created conditions ripe for excessive algal blooms that perennially appear in Lake Erie and other lakes and bays and threaten water quality. The culprit: nutrient-laden runoff, much of which comes from farmland.

The runoff has forced national, regional and local agencies, organizations and universities to collaborate on a solution. Their goal: convince more farmers across the Great Lakes region to implement sustainable farming practices.

That’s not always easy, said Great Lakes Commission Program Director Victoria Pebbles.

“It’s very, very difficult because farmers are proud, they’re private and they feel like the finger’s being pointed at them,” she said. “And most of these people are honest people and hardworking people who are just trying to do their best.”

Interest from farmers is substantial, said Brian Buehler, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs specialist for Michigan. But they often need help bearing the financial burden.

“Producers have been doing this for a long time, and they’re tried and true practices, so getting anyone to change is, it’s a challenge,” Buehler said. “They need to see it makes economic sense for them, because you know, it is a business.”

Among the programs that will be assessed to determine best methods at reducing agricultural runoff is the Saginaw River watershed.

“I think the farmers realize that they can have a big impact,” said Ben Thelen, a district conservationist with the Saginaw Conservation District. “And you know, a lot of them want to do the right thing.”

Farmers in the Saginaw River watershed used to compete for conservation grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thelen said. A waiting list formed.

Farmers still compete for funds, but the Saginaw River watershed’s priority designation narrowed the competitive pool and allowed more farmers to make changes, he said.

The Great Lakes Commission begins a two-year study in November, looking to channel federal sustainable practices subsidy dollars more efficiently into the hands of county officials and the pockets of farmers. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has put more than $100 million into those pockets over the past six years, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

In addition to the Saginaw River watershed, the commission will assess programs in three other watersheds: Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River; New York’s Genesee River; and the Maumee River, which winds through Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The practices of many farmers in all four watersheds have been the subject of prior studies, and the commission also has access to data submitted annually by each initiative-funded project.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in September to continue funding the restoration initiative, despite President Donald Trump’s proposal to zero out a its $300 million allocation from the federal budget. Deliberation over the possible budget cut continues in the U.S. Senate.

The commission’s Pebbles said battling algal blooms and its resulting poor water quality has been a main focus for the initiative since it launched in 2012, funding more than 90 programs to reduce farm runoff. Problems created by the blooms are serious: In 2014, algae blooms tainted tap water in Toledo, Ohio, causing shutoffs for 500,000 residents.

The bulk of the work comes from local governments like the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department, in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s part of the Lower Fox River watershed and is just outside of Green Bay. Like much of the Great Lakes, the bay is plagued by algal blooms — killing fish, forcing beach closings and damaging the local economy.

Runoff reduction won’t happen without large-scale buy-in from the farmers, said Greg Baneck, a county conservationist with 14 years under his belt in Outagamie.

“Basically, we are the local delivery method for getting the conservation on the ground,” Baneck said. “That’s the only way we’re getting down to the water quality standards, is if we have the funding for the boots on the ground.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has helped immensely on that front, he said. It allows the county to employ 12 full-time conservation staffers, up from seven. That makes it easier to meet directly with farmers.

Initiative funding has also made it cheaper for farmers to implement watershed-friendly practices, Baneck said. The county shares the cost of things like seeds for cover crops that keep the soil packed after harvest when fields would otherwise be brown and bare. It has also bought expensive conservation-friendly equipment that is loaned to farmers.

Outagamie County loans out its crimper roller, a machine that crushes and kills cover crops, clearing the way for planting and creating a protective bed over the seed. The decomposing stalks then fertilize the seed.  

Farmers can also cost-share installment of drainage tiles, which help regulate the amounts of runoff.

Baneck said there’s been a mindset change.

“Most farmers want to do the right thing,” he said. “If we can show them the financial benefit of it, that’s huge.

“Bottom line, everyone wants to still make a profit and help the environment, and that’s what we’re showing them.”

As more farmers see their neighbors adopt new practices, the momentum builds, Baneck said.

Collaboration and federal funding has also aided county officials in the Genesee River watershed in New York.

Water quality-related problems have persisted there for years, said Molly Cassatt, district manager of the Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Her district has partnered with 11 others to form the Genesee River Watershed Coalition of Conservation Districts. The coalition crosses state lines, with one county located in Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to work together so that these projects aren’t small and scattered, but really address the worst areas of the watershed,” Cassatt said.

And with programs “saturated with money” from federal sources, she said, adoption of conservation practices has hastened as farmers no longer have to wait long periods until they’re able to sign up for cost-sharing programs.

That increased buy-in from farmers is what the Great Lakes Commission is seeking.

Pebbles said, “What we want to know is, what’s changing behavior in the long term? If the money went away tomorrow, would they continue to implement these conservation practices?”

The study’s core team is composed of officials from the commission, Michigan State University and Ohio State University. The commission will also assemble an advisory team composed of county officials from those watersheds.

Steven Maier is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo.