Farmers in 20 Ohio counties of the Lake Erie watershed will be able to walk into a county federal conservation agency office today through Tuesday, and apply for grants paying $57 per acre to plant winter crops to keep fertilizer from washing into the rivers, federal lawmakers said on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) announced the $2 million emergency fund while standing next to the Maumee River at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in East Toledo.
They said the money will make a dent in the flow of fertilizer and manure that is feeding the late-summer algae blooms that threaten Toledo’s water supply.
It was an algae bloom that shut down Toledo’s water supply for about 500,000 people Aug. 2 when city chemists at the Collins Park Treatment Plant detected unsafe levels of a dangerous toxin, microcystin. The toxin can cause breathing problems, skin reactions, and liver damage.
Both Mr. Brown and Miss Kaptur stressed that the $2 million grant is just a portion of what they think needs to be accomplished to end the dangerous flow of phosphorus into Lake Erie.
Miss Kaptur suggested a Lake Erie watershed version of the Tennessee Valley Authority. She said there are 14,820 farms in the watershed, each averaging 250 acres.
“It’s the largest watershed in the Great Lakes and we’ve got to get this right,” Miss Kaptur said.
The $2 million will be spread over some 30,000 acres in 20 counties, Mr. Brown said. Mr. Brown and Miss Kaptur are trying to pass a related $20 million conservation program for Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Senator Brown said he helped to establish a program in the 2014 Farm Bill to provide up to $1.2 billion for farmers to implement conservation measures, including those that could reduce runoff into Lake Erie.
“They’re not all going to participate, but they need to,” Miss Kaptur said. “The farmers are going to be paid to plant cover crops like clovers, alfalfa, rye, wild radish, wheat, oats, other crops, to hold back nutrients so they don’t leach out.”
Mr. Brown said that, “Algae blooms will be back and it’s up to us to deal with this in an ongoing way.
“We must do more to stop runoff before it starts,” Mr. Brown said. “You can’t expect the city of Toledo to do it alone in terms of millions and millions and millions of dollars for water treatment.” He attributed the growing algae problem to climate change, with more torrential downpours that wash more fertilizer off fields and manure out of livestock pens.
Terry Cosby, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said his agency has offices in every county and started making the application forms available to farmers on Tuesday.
He said if all the money is used, it should stop at least half of the phosphorous runoff that otherwise would have occurred from those farms. Distributed evenly, the grant would cover about 1,700 acres per county.
“We’ve been visiting farms. We talk to a lot of farmers. The message from the farmers is ‘we want to do the right thing,’ ” Mr. Cosby said. “Hopefully we will have enough [farmers] sign up to use all those dollars.”
He said growing winter crops makes the ground absorb fertilizer and manure better than when they are spread on hard ground.
Oregon farmer Bill Myers said he believes farmers will take advantage of the offer, especially those knowledgeable about cover crops.
“This isn’t just farming’s problem. No farmer goes out there knowingly trying to harm the environment. It’s where we get our paycheck,” he said. “Everyone benefits when we can keep the run-off on the farm field.”
The grant would pay some or all of the cost of seeding a cover crop, said Mr. Myers, whose family farms 2,000 acres and who is president of the Lucas County Farm Bureau. “It’s designed to grab the nutrients that weren’t used. The biggest challenge for this is going to be the equipment that it’s going to take to get it applied in a timely manner.”
Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins attended Tuesday’s event. Mr. Collins drew a rash of critical comments on social media Tuesday after he compared the water crisis that hit Toledo to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as similar wake-up calls. Senator Brown said he agreed with the analogy because the water crisis got people’s attention about the threat to water quality.