Restoration of historic Great Black Swamp could help save Lake Erie

  • BuckLake2-jpg

    The water quality site at Buckeye Lake, which is one year ahead of the recently started project in the Great Black Swamp near Defiance.

  • DEFIANCE — The best hope for saving Lake Erie may lie in a serious commitment to restoring 10 percent of the historic Great Black Swamp, according to a scientific paper published this month by one of the world’s top wetlands experts.

    That’s 100,000 acres of the former Great Black Swamp’s 1 million acres.

    The paper asserts that taking that much strategically located farmland out of production at a time would itself bring a 40 percent reduction in Ohio’s phosphorus releases, the same percentage state and federal officials have challenged Ohio to achieve by 2025.

    But as radical as it may seem to restore parts of the Great Black Swamp, Bill Mitsch — the highly renowned scientist pushing the idea — said he is in no way advocating a return to the horse-and-buggy era.

    Mr. Mitsch told The Blade he believes portions of any farm can be taken out of production for a few years and used as a wetland without breaking apart drainage tiles, thereby allowing landowners to eventually return land they dedicate for marshes to farming again. He is suggesting drainage tiles be temporarily plugged.

    Think of it as a real-estate “flip,” Mr. Mitsch said.

    “We’d be flipping ecosystems,” he added.

    Mr. Mitsch argues a more robust effort at reducing phosphorus is needed because he believes the western Lake Erie region has had only “limited” and “inconsequential” responses to the 2014 Toledo water crisis.

    In his paper, he wrote how that landmark event — one in which nearly 500,000 metro residents were deprived of safe water by an algal toxin for almost three days — is “symptomatic that there is something very wrong with the way we are managing our landscapes around vulnerable aquatic ecosystems.”

    The scientist envisions a plan in which only one section of each participating farm is used as a wetland at a time. A new section would ideally be converted into a wetland each time a section is drained and put back into use for farming.

    Enriched soil and rainwater flowing down area rivers, streams, and ditches could be trapped by rejuvenated marshes and recycled as fertilizer, he said, reducing a landowner’s need to rely so heavily on manure and synthetic farm fertilizers.

    Many scientists have said there is enough so-called “legacy phosphorus” deep down in existing soil, from decades of application, to last for years.

    “The whole point of this is to take phosphorus out,” Mr. Mitsch said. “We need to recycle what we have.”

    Looking at strategies

    Repeated back-and-forth flips of land-uses remains highly conceptual.

    In his paper, published by Elsevier, a prestigious, 137-year-old Netherlands-based firm with more than 20,000 educational and professional science materials worldwide, including scientific journals, Mr. Mitsch said at least 10 years of research on a small scale is necessary to prove his theory before trying to deploy it on a large scale.

    The idea was immediately met with skepticism by Joe Cornerly, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, who called it “a pretty dramatic vision” and raised multiple questions about it. Meanwhile, he said, Ohio’s agriculture industry is “concentrating on finding solutions that are both effective and practical.”

    Jay Martin, an OSU ecological engineering professor collaborating with Mr. Mitsch, said the the idea of selectively restoring parts of the Great Black Swamp is an “interesting strategy with some potential,” though he cautioned against putting too much faith in any one project as a “magic bullet.” The fight against algae will likely require a suite of strategies, Mr. Martin said.

    But Mr. Mitsch is no novice when it comes to wetlands.

    Now the director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University, he is a professor emeritus at Ohio State University, where he worked for years and built a demonstration wetland on campus.

    He also is an eminent scholar and Sproul chair for Southwest Florida Habitat Restoration at Florida Gulf Coast. He is chair of the U.S. National Ramsar Committee, which promotes America’s continued commitment to a 1971 intergovernmental treaty called the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. That treaty includes more than 160 countries. He is editor-in-chief of an Elsevier journal, Ecological Engineering, and also holds courtesy and guest professor titles at the University of Florida, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of South Florida.

    Mr. Mitsch has traveled from Ohio to New Orleans to the Everglades to China and to other parts of the world for wetland research. A popular textbook he co-authored on wetland ecology is in its fifth edition.

    On the ground in Defiance County

    On Monday, Mr. Mitsch laid out his plans in the field for a long-term wetlands experiment - called a mesocosm - he designed for the Lenhart family farm in Defiance County. It was built to test his Great Black Swamp theory. It is modeled after a similar experiment he designed in 2016 in the Buckeye Lake area in central Ohio, near Columbus.

    At both sites, about 30 large plastic tubs - each 100 gallons large - are arranged side-by-side underground into rows. Gaps are filled with soil and gravel to insulate them. The tubs are almost like individual garden beds, except they’re designed to be mini wetlands that capture phosphorus-laden soil runoff and nutrient-enriched water from nearby rivers, streams, or ditches.

    “These are our test tubes,” Mr. Mitsch said of the tubs. “This is a test on a small scale to see if we can ramp them up.”

    The Great Black Swamp, created 20,000 years ago when the last glacier retreated, spanned diagonally across much of northwest Ohio and into northeast Indiana near Fort Wayne. It was 40 miles wide and 120 miles long, encompassing a whopping 1,500 square miles - nearly enough to cover the state of Connecticut - before settlers starting draining it in the 1840s, a project that took years.

    The Great Black Swamp was described in an Ohio Arts Council publication years ago as “the single most important natural feature of the pre-settlement landscape of northwest Ohio.” The city of Perrysburg’s website calls it “an oozing mass of water, mud, snakes, wolves, wildcats, biting flies, and clouds of gnats and mosquitoes.”

    Malarial fevers, cholera, and typhoid were not uncommon. Draining the swamp became such a big business that northwest Ohio had more than 50 factories making clay tiles in 1880, according to Mr. Mitsch’s paper.

    The region became one of the world’s most productive for farming after it was tiled and drained because the former swampland has such rich, fertile soil. Most of the work took until 1920, requiring a lot of sweat and aching muscles.

    Chris Lenhart, a University of Minnesota hydrologist, is part of the family that owns the Defiance County farm where Mr. Mitsch is doing his initial Great Black Swamp research.

    He said the Lenhart family has been involved in environmental projects for several years with its tree plantings and buffer strips, and that it has taken a keen interest in farming techniques that help improve water quality. The family put in a 30-acre wetland years ago to take advantage of incentives offered under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservative Reserve Program, or CRP, as well as 10 acres of prairie grass and trees, he said.

    The Great Black Swamp “just seems like it has to be part of the solution” to Lake Erie’s chronic algae, Mr. Lenhart said.

    Mr. Mitsch was in the area recently because Hurricane Irma motivated him to get out of Florida for a couple of weeks. He decided to spend the time setting up his newest test site.

    Water samples will be collected once every two weeks by Bing Bing Jiang, a 32-year-old native of China in a Ph.D program at the University of South Florida. Ms. Jiang said she is making a three-year commitment to the sites as part of her studies, and will have samples analyzed at a laboratory in Naples, Fla.

    She said she met Mr. Mitsch while he was in China doing wetlands research in 2012.

    China’s Lake Taihu is like Lake Erie in that it is chronically plagued by algae. A source of drinking water for 10 million people, it is China’s third largest lake. Some of its blooms last nine months a year. In May of 2007, in China’s Jiangsu province near the city of Wuxi, a massive bloom of toxin-producing microcystis did almost the same thing that happened in western Lake Erie near Toledo seven years later: Algae there made water unsafe for 2 million people for more than a week.

    Microcystis, which also is the dominant form of harmful algae in Lake Erie, is one of Earth’s oldest living organisms at 3.5 billion years old. It has been on the rise globally the past 25 years, some scientists believe because of poor land use and climate change.

    China is looking into the possibility of using rice paddies as artificial wetlands, Ms. Jiang said.

    Fondriest Environmental, of Fairborn, Ohio, near Dayton, designed the in-flow control system for Mr. Mitsch’s experiments. Tubs in Defiance County and near Buckeye Lake have been equipped with devices that allow researchers to upload data and control valves remotely, Steve Fondriest, company president and chief executive officer, said.

    The same company designed buoys installed near the Toledo water intake, near OSU’s Stone Laboratory, and other parts of western Lake Erie to help researchers monitor lake conditions as algae forms.

    The cost of materials to set up each experiment is $15,000 to $20,000, Mr. Mitsch said.

    “We’re not going to clean the lake with this little experiment,” he said. “We’re going to show how it could happen.”

    Contact Tom Henry at, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.