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Researchers are examining multiple factors as they strive to devise a comprehensive solution to the recurring algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Along the way, they’re creating a wide array of tools and techniques to help combat them.

Among the latest is the EnviroImpact tool, a free online information source that is meant to help farmers and other landowners manage fertilizer applications to minimize nutrient runoff risks. 

“Farmers need knowledge and tools to help them be environmentally responsible,” said Sarah Fronczak, environmental management educator in the Michigan State University Extension Office in Hillsdale County, in the heart of the Western Lake Erie Basin. “They try to do their best, and the EnviroImpact tool is intended to help them do that.”

‘Information in one place’

The EnviroImpact tool is a decision-support tool for short-term manure and commercial fertilizer application planning that shows the daily runoff risks at any location in Michigan, based on such considerations as precipitation and temperature forecasts, soil temperature, and moisture and landscape characteristics.

Using that information, the tool calculates the daily runoff risk for the next one-, three- and seven-day periods, and categorizes the runoff risk as clear (no runoff expected), low, moderate or severe.

“It puts all of the information in one place and is a quick and easy way to gauge runoff risks,” said Erica Rogers, environmental management educator with the Gratiot County MSU Extension Office. “I think what’s nice about it is that it’s very easily accessible and it’s quick.”

There’s no cost to use the tool, and sign-up is not required, although creating an account allows additional customization and for users to receive text and email notifications when runoff risks are high, Fronczak noted.

Multiple partners

The EnviroImpact tool is a prediction model developed by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service in partnership with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program; MSU Institute of Water Research; Michigan Sea Grant; Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy; and MSU Extension.

It’s part of a regional effort to support runoff risk decision-making in the Great Lakes Basin supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the National Weather Service North Central River Forecast Center.

In Michigan, MSU Extension was charged with piloting the EnviroImpact tool’s rollout in the summer of 2017, making adjustments based on test users’ feedback and educating farmers and other residents about how to use it.

While it’s too early to quantify the tool’s impact on helping to curb fertilizer runoff, an average of more than 300 property owners statewide are now using it each month, Rogers said. While some users are homeowners looking to manage fertilizer application to their lawns, she said, most are farmers.

One of them is Jay Williams, who farms 2,800 acres as operator of Stoney Ridge Farms in the Hillsdale County community of Waldron.

“Any information that can be gathered is good information,” said Williams, adding that the EnviroImpact tool complements other farm practices, such as testing soil and the amount of nutrients in plant tissue, to manage fertilizer applications. “We’re always trying to minimize what’s leaving the farm.”

‘Manure is money’

Indeed, farmers are the first to promote keeping fertilizer on the land and out of waterways, Rogers said.

“You’ll hear the saying manure is money,” she said. Nutrient runoff, she said, “is like watching money going down the drain — literally.”

From an environmental standpoint, nutrients found in manure and commercial fertilizers — such as nitrogen and phosphorus — can enter rivers and streams as runoff when it rains. In Michigan, almost all waterways flow to the Great Lakes, Rogers noted, and fertilizer runoff can add to the excess nutrients that lead to algae overgrowth or harmful algal blooms.

Beyond timing fertilizer applications — as the EnviroImpact tool is designed to make easier — farmers also employ techniques such as planting cover crops to lower runoff risks, Rogers said. “I think a lot of people who are not in the farm community are unaware that a lot of work is done by farmers to try and keep fertilizer on the land.”

MI CLEAR leads the charge

Controlling fertilizer runoff is just one piece of the puzzle to resolving Lake Erie’s algal blooms, say researchers, who also cite such potential causes as climate change and stormwater, wastewater (from both municipal and private septic systems) and invasive species.

Just as the creation of the EnviroImpact tool involved many partners, a diverse team of public and private organizations are working to resolve algal blooms in Lake Erie.

In Michigan, governmental, environmental and private groups have responded by creating the Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie Through Action and Research (MI CLEAR) partnership, a coalition working to improve Lake Erie and the water quality of the rivers and streams that flow into the lake within a six-county region: Hillsdale, Jackson, Lenawee, Monroe, Washtenaw and Wayne, which comprise the Western Lake Erie Basin.

The goal of MI CLEAR is to improve the basin’s long-term water quality through open discussion among regional leaders, coordination of existing efforts, support for research that builds understanding of science around water quality issues, and actions that bring meaningful and lasting change.

More information on the EnviroImpact tool is available at enviroimpact.iwr.msu.edu.

More information on MI CLEAR and the efforts to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin is available at facebook.com/MIClearPartnership/.

Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.

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