Ideas on Dredging, Algae Blooms, and Farming in the Maumee Basin

My corner of Ohio has some unique issues.  Along with road and bridge maintenance and improving industrial railways, northern Ohio needs to continuously maintain water routes to and through Lake Erie.  A river that feeds into a lake typically erodes land, slowly depositing it as silt in the mouth of the river, where the river meets the lake.  If the river is navigable, and especially if an important harbor sits at the mouth of the river, then dredging needs to be done regularly to ensure lake and river traffic isn’t slowed down.

Until this year, weather patterns have contributed to lowering water levels in the Great Lakes.  Due to a backlog in dredging, channels weren’t deep enough for lake freighters to pass as usual.  Many were forced to carry less cargo, which translates into more expense or simply less business for all concerned.  This year looks to be better, due to the miserable winter we had, which caused more ice on the Great Lakes, which is melting and raising water levels back towards normal.  However, the dredging issue still looms large.  The city of Toledo, Ohio, sits on the mouth of the Maumee River.  Toledo receives such a large amount of silt each year that the city requires 25% of all the dredging necessary in ALL the Great Lakes!  Unfortunately, a backlog of dredging in general has led to the buildup of more than twice the normal amount of debris.  This issue is getting more problematic and more expensive, as government holdups delay the necessary amount of dredging.

So why the delay?  There was already a backlog, but a major part of this issue is what happens to the dredged material once it’s been dug out.  It has often been dumped in the middle of Lake Erie, but this raises environmental concerns.  Lake Erie has been suffering through an increase in algae blooms, which is contributing to areas of hypoxia (dead zones, where no fish can live), as well as destroying local tourism and fishing economies.  The biggest culprit is dissolved phosphorus, which comes largely through nonpoint sources such as farm runoff.  (Phosphorus feeds the algae.)  Some environmentalists believe that dumping large quantities of phosphorus-containing silt would exacerbate the algae blooms and in turn, the hypoxia in the lake.  I haven’t really seen any studies proving that this would definitely occur, but it’s understandable why people would be concerned.  It seems logical that it COULD happen.  The dredged material could be put in a contained area on or near land, but these dumping grounds are filling up too quickly to handle all of the backlog.

A side-note is necessary here:  Farmers have been trying extremely hard to adapt to the newest and most environmentally friendly farming techniques.  In the 1970s-90s, farmers were convinced by environmentalists and the EPA to switch to no-till farming, which leads to less erosion of topsoil.  Topsoil loss is a worldwide problem:  one study claims the world has only 60 years’ worth of topsoil left.  Topsoil takes 500 some years to be created naturally.  If we don’t save what we have and create more, we’re in big trouble.  In the U.S., we have been creating good topsoil by adding chemicals (fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen, plus herbicides), but this isn’t really sustainable long-term.  No-till caused less erosion, but is the likely contributor of the massive influx of dissolved phosphorus in water running off fields.  Dissolved phosphorus wasn’t really a problem before the switch; regular phosphorus was a problem, but after point sources such as sewage plants adopted new phosphorus standards, this level dropped.

The government doesn’t really want farmers to switch back to tilling; the farmers don’t want that, either.  The face of farming has changed from the 1960s and 1970s; with no-till, farmers were able to farm more acres in less time.  Small farmers have mostly been forced out.  Today’s farmers can’t really afford to switch back.  They don’t have the time and can’t afford the erosion.  No-till has caused farmers to stop applying fertilizer in the spring as crops are seeded; now they disc and apply it in the fall, so it sits and mixes in all winter.  Often farmers will apply natural fertilizers, such as manure.  Unfortunately, fall applications lead to more runoff, as plants aren’t grabbing it and holding it in place.  In spring, typically more of it stays in place, as growing plants use it more quickly.  Farmers don’t really want to switch back to spring application, though.  Spring storms have become more and more intense each year, which increases the likelihood of all that expensive fertilizer washing away before the plants even have a chance to use it (defeating the purpose of spring application over fall, as well).

So what to do with all that phosphorus-laden dredged material?  And how can we stop the phosphorus influx and algae blooms in Lake Erie?  Here are some ideas:

  • Dredged material can be filtered and reused as fill-dirt and landscaping material.  In some cases, it has even been used as new topsoil for depleted areas.  Ohio could fill in mined areas with this free fill-dirt, and mix it with excess manure from, say, dairy farms and give it away free (or for a small fee) to farmers and those needing topsoil.  Farmers would probably use less fertilizer, as some nutrients are already in the soil.  This probably wouldn’t use all the dredged material, so more containment zones need to be built, and perhaps a small amount (smaller than has been dumped in the past) could be dumped in the lake.
  • If several water-cleaning stations were built at major confluences in the Maumee River, the phosphorus load could be reduced before it got to the lake.
  • Farmers in the Maumee Basin are inadvertently contributing to the algae problems in Lake Erie.  The EPA wants them to use GPS and only apply fertilizer to those spots in the fields that need it.  However, this shoves out the few small farming operations that are left.  This GPS system is expensive ($30,000 initial outlay).  Some lawmakers want to force farmers to take a class on this GPS system before they’re allowed to even plant.  This will probably cause disastrous delays in crop-planting, and it seems to invade personal rights.  (Should a person have to have the government’s permission before they can plant a crop to feed themselves?)  This idea is problematic for many.  Perhaps small farmers could join together in groups to pay for this, or a government subsidy could help.  (Government created the problem, government should help fix it.)
  • Wetlands help to filter out phosphorus.  If the government bought some of the land near the Maumee and some of its major tributaries to create more wetlands, and/or created incentives for farmers to plant a little less and create Riparian strips along creeks (sort of a mini-forest on either side of the creek, wild land that can filter the runoff), much of the phosphorus could be eliminated.
  • Phosphorus has to get back into the ground somehow, or the topsoil won’t grow things anymore.  Research on cover crops and other natural forms of re-creating loam and soil has been done.  Incentives need to be created to encourage farmers to use fewer chemicals and more natural methods.  This can’t be a mandate that threatens their business and livelihoods (ahem, hear that, Cliff Hite?  A carrot, not a stick!)  This needs to be time- and cost-effective for farmers.

Using just one of these ideas won’t work.  These need to be used in combination, or little will change.  The phosphorus-algae problem needs dealt with, and the dredging is also an immediate issue.  I don’t want the local farmers to get crushed under mandates and fines, so care needs to be taken to benefit them as well.  This affects my friends, neighbors, and even me:  I own some farmland in Allen County, and live in the Maumee Basin.