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Reducing Harmful Lake Erie Algal Blooms: What Will It Take?

Incentive programs could boost the use of agricultural practices that reduce the nutrient runoff linked to algal blooms. (Zachary Haslick, Aerial Associates Photography Inc./Flickr)
Incentive programs could boost the use of agricultural practices that reduce the nutrient runoff linked to algal blooms. (Zachary Haslick, Aerial Associates Photography Inc./Flickr)
May 2, 2019

COLUMBUS, Ohio – With the waters of Lake Erie starting to warm, concerns are rising about the possibility of toxic algal blooms over the summer months.

There are evidence-based agricultural practices that can reduce the threat, so why are they not widely used?

New research of solutions and behaviors found that goals to reduce nutrient runoff linked to algal blooms are feasible, as many farmers are motivated to use best practices.

However, Robyn Wilson, associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, explains real and perceived barriers are preventing action.

"We see a lot of people being willing to use cover crops,” she says. “But when you dig into why they're not doing it, what we see as a reason at an individual level, farmers lack confidence in their ability to successfully implement them. And they also question how effective cover crops are as a solution."

Wilson, who led the research, says farmers need better cost-benefit information, support tools and technical assistance to execute recommended practices.

According to the study, the most effective strategies to reduce nutrients are the use of phosphorus application guidelines, subsurface fertilizer application, erosion controls and water-management practices.

Voluntary and mandatory approaches to address algal blooms are suggested. And Wilson explains well-designed outreach and incentive programs could increase voluntary adoption, such as the installation of water filtration measures on fields currently in use.

"That's going to require economic incentive because no farmer's going to volunteer to take land out of production,” she states. “We have some pretty conservation-minded farmers, but that's still a pretty big ask for them. We're asking them to do something for a collective benefit at an individual cost."

Wilson also recommends further understanding of the motivations behind the use of certain practices, and how to best ensure long-term use. That's because improvements won't happen overnight.

"Even if another 40 percent of farmers started using these practices tomorrow, would we see those benefits from the lake in the next year or two?” she questions. “Maybe not. So some of those processes take a while to play out to get the positive changes from an environmental standpoint."

Wilson says she's encouraged by the research, as well as Gov. Mike DeWine's recently proposed $900 million fund to improve water quality, specifically focused on Lake Erie.

Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH