No single farmer can be blamed for this year’s algal blooms in Lake Erie, but as a community, farmers have an impact.

The blooms are associated with phosphorus loading, according to Jeffrey Reutter, director for the Center for Lake Erie Area Research. Agriculture represents about two-thirds of the human contribution of the nutrient in the Great Lakes.

At the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) in southwestern Ontario, water quality scientist Katie Stammler and conservation technician Michael Dick feel individuals can make a difference.

“Getting the right rate is the No. 1 consideration,” Dick said.

The “right rate” is part of what’s known as the Four Rs and refers to matching the nutrient rate to crop requirements to achieve the maximum economic yield.

The three other Rs include applying the right source of nutrients, applying them at the right time and applying them in the right place.

The Four Rs are among the recommendations in a recent report written by Nancy Goucher of Environment Defence and Tony Maas of Fresh Water Future Canada. 

There are also regulatory and incentive programs within the Great Lakes watershed that have made a difference. However, Goucher and Maas say further action is needed.

They suggest market-based initiatives that would transfer money from undesirable activities to those that are desirable. For example, the cost to farmers of reducing nutrients could be included in what consumers pay for certain products.

“Concepts such as tax-shifting, nutrient trading, correction of environmentally damaging economic incentives and pollution taxes should be evaluated for their applicability 
in the Ontario context,” the report states.

The full report, Clean not green: tackling agal blooms on the Great Lakes, is available on the Environment Defence website.

Dick said the attitude among farmers within ERCA’s jurisdiction varies. While some adhere to the Four R recommendations, others fear that “skimping” on fertilizer could negatively affect returns, especially when commodity prices are strong.

There’s also been a debate related to the practice of no-till.

It’s theorized that the burrows left by earthworms and natural cracks in the soil provide a direct route for soluble reactive phosphorus to reach tile systems. In the past, the focus was on phosphorus attached to soil particles.

Dick said that regardless of its form, phosphorus is the concern when it comes to algae. 

No-till and minimum till remain popular, but the practices are typically combined with some form of tillage for corn acres.

Factors beyond farming are also linked to this year’s algae blooms on Lake Erie. Urban areas contribute to phosphorus loading, and there has been more than the usual share of heavy rainfall events this year.

Of special concern is the Maumee River watershed at the western end of Lake Erie. The intensively farmed region accounts for three percent of the lake’s volume.

Algae blooms often start at the mouth of the Maumee and then extend eastward.

This year the blooms received international media coverage after toxins entered the water supply of Toledo, Ohio, at the mouth of the Maumee, making the water undrinkable for three days. It’s felt toxins associated with blue-green algae were the likely cause.

Farming contributes to Lake Erie algal bloom