In recent remarks about Lake Erie’s toxic algae problem, the head of Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) sounded eerily similar to lobbyists for Big Tobacco when they sought to delay necessary action to address the dangers of smoking.
During a recent conference call with reporters, the MDARD director made a number of statements that appeared aimed at muddying the waters about agriculture’s role in algae outbreaks. Let’s be clear: There is abundant evidence that unsustainable farming practices are chiefly responsible for harmful algae blooms. Voluntary programs for farmers are not effective enough at curbing pollution and simply will not get the job done.
As with the health effects of smoking, claims about the need for more studies don’t hold water. Researchers continually conclude agriculture is a primary contributor of pollution to Lake Erie. University of Michigan research estimates that fertilizer and manure from farms make up 85 percent of phosphorus delivered to Lake Erie from the Maumee River watershed. Phosphorus — especially in its dissolved form — is the nutrient buffet that algae feast on. Heidelberg University researchers have shown that dissolved phosphorus loading into Lake Erie from agriculture-heavy watersheds has been increasing in recent decades.
Nevertheless, MDARD’s director told reporters that concern about farmers spreading manure on frozen fields is a “red herring” and claimed there is science showing it can be done safely. That claim defies experience and common sense. Last winter’s big temperature swings showed that winter rainstorms are becoming as common as snowstorms in Michigan. It is during these unseasonal rain events that manure can flow, uninhibited, from frozen or snow-covered ground into creeks and rivers that feed Lake Erie.
More to the point, the head of Ohio’s agriculture department was on the same conference call and noted that his state has banned winter manure application, adding, “the best practice is not to do that.” If Ohio recognizes the threat and has prohibited winter manure spreading, why would Michigan — surrounded by the Great Lakes and duty-bound to protect them — continue to allow it?
We can all agree that farmers deserve our respect and appreciation. Most are careful stewards of the environment. But farmers are also pragmatists who respond to economic realities. When prices are high for commodity crops, farmers have little incentive to change their practices to participate in voluntary programs to reduce nutrient runoff. We applaud farmers enrolled in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), a voluntary program to reduce environmental risks on farms. However, the program is not designed to significantly reduce nutrient pollution. Because MAEAP is voluntary, the program is limited to a subset of farm acres in Michigan.
It’s time for the state to get serious about protecting Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes by taking meaningful action to combat agricultural pollution. We should require stewardship practices we know are effective at reducing nutrient pollution as a bare-minimum standard for all Michigan farmers. If state agriculture officials want more research, it shouldn’t be for studies that confirm what we already know about farm pollution’s role in the degradation of Lake Erie. Instead, those resources should be used to make nutrient application on farms as efficient as possible by comprehensively testing soil and implementing best management practices to keep excess phosphorus and nitrogen out of our waterways.
Following this year’s wet spring, scientists predict another potentially harmful algae bloom this summer. Try as they may, state officials can no longer ignore this problem or pretend we don’t know what’s causing it. It’s time to get to work.
Tom Zimnicki is agriculture policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.