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Published: Friday, 7/15/2005

Farmers asked to help reduce River Raisin's nitrate levels


PETERSBURG, Mich. - Nitrate levels in a 16-mile stretch of the River Raisin between Blissfield and Deerfield are higher than state standards allow, but not high enough to threaten the area's drinking water, state officials said yesterday.

"The problem is not severe at this time," said Erick Sunday of the state's Department of Environmental Quality at a public meeting in Summerfield Township hall. "The question is: How much nitrate is too much?"

Nitrate, oxidized nitrogen dissolved in water, can be potentially harmful to infants. State standards call for a maximum of 10 milligrams of nitrate per liter as an allowable amount. Testing of the Blissfield-Deerfield River Raisin stretch between January, 2003, and March, 2005, found the nitrate levels to occasionally exceed that level and, on occasion, reach 16.6 milligrams, Mr. Sunday said.

Nitrogen leaks can come from industrial and stormwater runoffs, but they are controlled by state regulations and do not comprise a significant amount of the problem. More serious is the runoff from commercial fertilizers and manure, which account for 70 percent of the nitrate found in the river.

Mr. Sunday said the environmental quality department and other environmental organizations plan to begin an education program for farmers to reduce the amount of nitrogen leaked into the river.

Among the solutions, he said, would be for farmers, who control about 80 percent of the land, to split their fertilizer applications, waiting until the plants are sprouting before applying a second application. Nitrogen is less likely to seep into the riverbeds once plants already are growing, he said. Other remedies include covering crops, holding off on fertilizer applications until later in the growing season, and reducing the amounts of fertilizer used if the plants don't require it.

Janna Sebald of the environmental quality department's Jackson, Mich., office said there are other issues related to environmental concerns in the River Raisin watershed that need to be addressed. She said a watershed council has been formed to seek state and federal grants to address the issue and asked those at yesterday's meeting to get involved.

Al Hoffmanner of the Somerset Township Planning Commission said one way to educate farmers about environmental issues is to get voluntary mentors who understand the issues to work with the farmers. "It's a lot of work," he said. "You need to find unique people."

Henry Lievens of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners said farmers should not get all of the blame.

"Farmers are doing everything they can. They're working towards conservation, too. It's their livelihood. A lot of people overlook that," he said.

State Rep. Kathy Angerer (D., Dundee) told the group the area is fortunate to have the water resources it has.

"We need to protect it," she said.

Brenda Sayles of the environmental quality department in Lansing gave a brief presentation on E. coli bacteria found in the river in the same 16-mile stretch.

"The results are encouraging," she said. "There are very few places where E. coli exceeded [the state required level]."

The E. coli found in the river likely comes from cow or duck feces, Ms. Sayles said.

Education programs for the nitrate problem will also be used to address the E. coli issue, the officials said.

Contact George Tanber

at gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3610.

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