The Ohio State University will be the lead partner on a new five-year, multimillion-dollar pilot watershed project in northwestern Ohio designed to demonstrate that agricultural conservation practices — if used on 70% of the farmland in a watershed, and evaluated on a watershed scale — can help meet Lake Erie’s water quality goals.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service, is providing $6.8 million in funding for the project.

A further $4 million is being made available to the project by the state of Ohio through the H2Ohio water quality initiative, which the project will complement.

Key to the project are investments by other partners that bring the project’s total funding to more than $18 million.

The new project “targets the ultimate goal of preserving Lake Erie while supporting agricultural vitality and environmental sustainability,” said Cathann A. Kress, Ohio State’s vice president for agricultural administration and dean of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

As part of Ohio State’s wider efforts to improve water quality, the project “pulls together local, state, and federal partnerships while leveraging CFAES’ water quality expertise through Ohio State University Extension, our research at Stone Laboratory, and our work with precision agriculture to benefit Ohioans,” Kress said.

Ohio State’s partners on the project include four agricultural businesses —The Mosaic Company, Nutrien Ag Solutions, Heritage Cooperative, and Haselman Ag; agricultural organizations; nongovernmental groups; the Ohio Department of Agriculture; the Ohio Department of Natural Resources; federal agencies; and four other Ohio universities —Heidelberg University, Bowling Green State University, Kent State University, and the University of Toledo.

Lake Erie’s water quality goals focus on reducing nutrient runoff from agricultural fields in the lake’s watershed, especially phosphorus runoff, so as to reduce phosphorus levels entering the lake by 40%, resulting in reduced harmful algal blooms.

This was taken over Lake Erie during a July 15, 2019 flight to assist in improvements to the NOAA Harmful Algal Bloom forecast. The flyovers are done in collaboration with researchers at NASA Glenn. (Zachary Haslick, Aerial Associates Photography Inc.)

“While other efforts have supported conservation practices across the Lake Erie basin and demonstrated improvements at the field scale, there’s a need to demonstrate how these practices can move the needle at a watershed scale,” said Jay Martin, the project’s director and an ecological engineering professor with the CFAES Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

Without that evidence, “we don’t know what type or level of conservation practices or support are needed to achieve Lake Erie’s water quality goals,” said Martin, who is also a research lead with Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute, which helped support the project’s proposal.

The project is designed to uncover that evidence, Martin said. In doing so, it will provide a scientific basis for determining the best ways to reach the lake’s water quality goals, and to reach them while maintaining agricultural productivity.

The project also will provide a template to adopt in other areas, Martin said, “so that eventually, we can attain water quality and production goals across the Lake Erie basin.”

Set for the mostly agricultural Shallow Run watershed in Hardin County, which is part of the larger Maumee River watershed and drains into western Lake Erie, the project aims to have farmers adopt conservation practices on 70% of the watershed’s 6,800 acres.

The 70% adoption rate comes from previous modeling studies, which have estimated that this level is needed to reach Lake Erie’s 40% phosphorus reduction target.

To help reach that rate in the Shallow Run watershed, the project will offer farmers there much higher payments than are currently being offered for adopting conservation practices. The payments are meant to incentivize adoption and offset the costs of implementing the practices.

Included among those payments will be a unique “agglomeration bonus” for farmers who specifically adopt subsurface phosphorus fertilizer application. As more and more farmers adopt the practice, they will earn progressively higher payments.

Throughout the Shallow Run watershed, the project will implement a variety of agricultural best management practices. Then, to track the practices’ impact at the watershed scale, Laura Johnson, director of Heidelberg’s National Center for Water Quality Research, will perform field-to-stream monitoring of changes in water quality.

“Doing something that has not been done before is really exciting,” Martin said. “Across the country, efforts to improve water quality at a watershed scale have generally produced nutrient reductions of around 5%. None has come close to a 40% reduction, which is our goal, or have partnered with the agricultural community in the way that we will for this project.”

Ohio State’s partners on the project include Bowling Green State University, the University of Toledo, Heidelberg University-National Center for Water Quality Research, Kent State University, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, The Mosaic Company, Nutrien Ag Solutions, Heritage Cooperative, Haselman Ag, The Nutrient Stewardship Council (administered by the Ohio AgriBusiness Association), Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, American Farmland Trust, the Ohio Dairy Producers Association, USDA-Agricultural Research Service (Soil Drainage Research Unit), U.S. Geological Survey, USDA Conservation Effects Assessment Project, National Wildlife Federation, Lake Erie Foundation, The Nature Conservancy in Ohio, Hardin Soil and Water Conservation District, Ohio Sea Grant, Ohio State University Extension, Ohio State University Knowledge Exchange, and the State of Ohio.

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