Food and Water: Watershed lessons from the Toledo water crisis

Food and Water: Watershed lessons from the Toledo water crisis

Experts convene in Ohio to discuss what they've learned about water quality and how they're moving forward following the 2014 Toledo water disaster.

Collaboration was the consistent theme of two panel discussions convened in Toledo, Ohio, this week, organized by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance as part of their ongoing Food Dialogues series.

Panelists for the first discussion included Sandy Bihn of the Toledo Lighthouse Society; Chuck Campbell, Toledo water treatment; Rich Nachazel, Destination Toledo; and Adam Sharp, Ohio Farm Bureau.

The second discussion included Jack Fisher, Ohio Farm Bureau; Josh Knights, The Nature Conservancy of Ohio; Jay Martin, Ohio State University; and Terry McClure, farmer and vice chair of the Ohio Soybean Council.  Both panels were moderated by broadcast journalist Gail Hogan.

Gail Hogan, retired Emmy award winning broadcast journalist; Sandy Bihn, president, Toledo Lighthouse Society and executive director, Lake Erie Waterkeeper Inc.; Chuck Campbell, acting commissioner of water treatment, city of Toledo; Rich Nachazel, president, Destination Toledo, Inc,; and Adam Sharp, vice president of public policy, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation

Discussion centered on the Toledo water crisis of August 2014, where a toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie contaminated the water supply of the entire city of Toledo, leaving 500,000 residents without drinking water for two days. Since that time, agriculture and municipalities have found themselves in the crosshairs of conversations determining how to reduce phosphorus runoff into the Lake.

Related: Water quality on the farm: An Ohio watershed lesson

Sandy Bihn works with the Toledo Lighthouse Society and says one pound of phosphorus equals 3-5 pounds of algae. Toledo News reports that phosphorous in the Lake is down compared to last year; 114 metric tons in 2015 compared to 210 metric tons sampled at this time last year. But both are well above the 64 ton minimum in 2012 – a year that saw virtually no algae bloom. 

Adam Sharp, Ohio Farm Bureau, shared that there needs to be a comprehensive look at sources and nutrients and more funding for research and infrastructure, which are "not the sexiest issues to fund."

Sharp says agriculture is looking at different ways to move manure, such as bio solids and waste material from sewage sludge. He also points out that Ohio isn't the only nutrient source; Michigan and Indiana are contributing as well as other areas further up the water stream. The good news is that farm groups in each of those states are working with farmers and conservation groups to put good conservation practices into place. 

Related: Chesapeake Bay water clean-up regs would 'flood' Midwest farms

Sharp also said there's a set of demonstration farms in the western Lake Erie basin that show practices research has shown to be helpful, and show new ones farmers aren't as familiar with yet. Ohio State University is also looking at current recommendations on nutrient applications.

"Those are out of date," Sharp says. "We're looking to update them because we know they're very much out of date."

Balancing the food and water equation >>

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In terms of the 2014 disaster, Bihn says it had a lot to do with a cool, dry July, coupled with a unique set of weather conditions and wind patterns. Existing phosphorus levels in the lake caused the enormous algae bloom, which happened to cover the water intake pipe for the city of Toledo.

Chuck Campbell, who works with Toledo water treatment protocols, says it will be different this year. "We have more probes on buoys in the lake and we have a great early warning system this year. That gives us a chance to turn up treatment systems."

Balancing food and water equation

The second panel of the day focused more on the idea of balancing food production demands with water quality needs. Moderator Gail Hogan said, "Our discussion centers on water quality and yet we can't put it all on farming. We can't have a choice between food and water."

Jack Fisher at the Ohio Farm Bureau agreed. "We have to have both. We can't put in place water quality guidelines that negatively impact farms and their ability to produce food.

"Ten years from now or when we get our solutions in place 20 years from now, I hope we're not having conversations about how to produce enough food because farms have been negatively impacted."

Related: Des Moines sues Iowa counties over water quality: What does it mean?

Terry McClure, an Ohio farmer and Ohio Soybean Council board member, agrees farmers have to be part of the solution, no matter what percentage their responsibility.

"We have to get involved. One thing about agriculture is that we can turn on a dime. We can make a decision over lunch and put it into practice that afternoon. We don't need a committee," McClure joked. "Five or 6 years ago, we didn't even know what a DRP (dissolved reactive phosphorus) meant. But we learned. And I suspect we will learn tomorrow a better way than we know today."

Expanding ag production >>

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Josh Knights, The Nature Conservancy of Ohio, pointed out that in order to feed the 9 billion people predicted by 2050, you have to either intensify agriculture or convert more land to agriculture. Adding that the favorable choice is to intensify existing agriculture – and that requires more fertilizer – he noted that any efforts to monitor nutrient loss and water quality have to result from collaboration. 

"We've been working with Farm Bureau on a voluntary approach far before what happened in Toledo and it's ramped up since then," Knights describes. "It's a better approach than what we see in other states. In Iowa, the city of Des Moines is suing farmers upstream and as everybody knows, there's nothing like a lawsuit to bring people together!

"I'd take our approach over what's happening elsewhere any day."

Jay Martin at Ohio State University says some of their best research right now is on-farm, edge-of-field research – which happens to be taking place on McClure's farm.

"We can say, 'here are results.' The most powerful thing you can do is show the data to farmers," he says.

They're also working with cities to reduce storm water overflows and working with municipalities as well, Martin adds. "Our research focus is on agriculture, on farmers, but we're addressing municipal issues as well."

Continued reading: Water quality on the farm, a three-part series on water regulations, their cost and implications

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