$77M project aims to cut farm runoff feeding Lake Erie algae

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — A federal program to reduce farm runoff in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana that helps feed harmful algae in Lake Erie will more than double in size, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday.

The addition of $41 million will provide an overall total of $77 million toward cutting phosphorus runoff in western Lake Erie over three years.

The USDA will work with farmers by developing plans including planting strips of grass or cover crops that help the soil filter pollutants.

Lake Erie continues to be plagued by algae blooms that produce the kind of toxins that contaminated Toledo’s water supply in 2014. The bloom that spread across the lake last summer was the largest on record, covering an area roughly the size of New York City.

Algae blooms — linked to phosphorus from farm fertilizers, livestock manure and sewage treatment plants — have been blamed for fouling drinking water and contributing to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can’t survive.

A study released last year by the University of Michigan Water Center said current efforts to keep phosphorus on fields are falling far short of results needed to achieve a 40 percent drop in runoff — a target set by the U.S. and Canada in February.

It suggested major changes would be needed to prevent harmful algae outbreaks, such as converting cropland into grassland and applying fertilizers below the surface instead of on top.

The USDA’s three-year project should reduce phosphorus by 640,000 pounds each year — about 7 percent of the phosphorus that comes from mainly agriculture sources in the western Lake Erie region.

The voluntary program will target farmers whose land is more vulnerable to runoff in northwestern Ohio, southeastern Michigan and northeastern Indiana.

“It’s a good step, but it’s not going to be sufficient to fix the problem,” said Jason Weller, chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The farm industry along with state and local governments will need to put more funding toward solving the problem, he said.

A study released by the department on Monday said conservation efforts in the western Lake Erie region in 2012 cut phosphorus losses by 11.4 million pounds.

Farmers also have been using less phosphorus per acre while using methods to reduce runoff on 60 percent of acres in 2012, up from 45 percent between 2003-06, the report said.

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