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Friday, February 5th, 2010

Alliance for farmers forming

Grand Lake Watershed

By Nancy Allen
A private alliance is forming to help farmers in the Grand Lake Watershed comply with existing environmental regulations to protect and improve the lake's water quality.
Tom Menke, who operates Menke Consulting in Greenville, and fellow ag consultant David Ricke, first began discussing the idea to form the Ag Quality Water Alliance (AQWA) last summer after the Ohio EPA announced the presence of a toxin produced by the abundant blue-green algae in Grand Lake. Excess nutrients in runoff from agriculture land, the predominant land use in the watershed, feeds the algae which then produces the toxin, Ohio EPA tests have shown.
"Tom and I are agronomists and soil consultants and we also do waste management plans for large livestock operations and do (state required) permitting for large livestock farms," said Ricke, the alliance's project administrator. "This is the emphasis of the AQWA; being able to do things right."
The alliance will be a private organization and charge a membership fee plus a fee for any consulting services provided.
"We're going to be proactive and make sure the existing rules at Ohio EPA and federal EPA and the (Ohio) department of agriculture are being followed," he said.
Ricke said it's time watershed farmers take control of their own destiny and fix issues that have plagued the lake for many years, or risk the chance that new, stricter regulations might force them into unpleasant choices.
Tom Rampe, a member of the nonprofit Lake Improvement Association, said the alliance sounds like a good idea because it would mesh with the LIA's objective of educating producers to improve their operations environmentally.
"I'm not speaking on behalf of the LIA, but if they (the alliance) can engage the agriculture community to participate in processes that result in more efficient use of nutrients and less runoff, then I would think this would be a beneficial group to have in the watershed."
Previously an organization that raised money for projects such as picnic tables and shelter house doors, the LIA in the last 10 years has become a political voice asking for a fix to the lake's poor water quality. Ohio EPA testing shows the Grand Lake/Wabash River Watershed is one of the most degraded in the state primarily due to runoff from farmland.
The LIA has rankled watershed farmers who say the group has unjustly accused them of contributing to the lake's problems.
Ricke said alliance organizers have been promoting the AQWA at meetings of different farm groups. There will be an organizational meeting in early March. Members would be helped mostly in a one-on-one setting.
Members who join would have access to a "platoon" of ag consultants familiar with the watershed's issues, Ricke said. Available services would include soil analysis and GPS mapping to establish fertilizer application rates and setbacks from streams, roadside ditches and wells, sampling wells and completing an onfarm audit and inspection twice a year. Anything found wrong during audits would be brought to the member's attention and the consultant would work with the member to correct them.
Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans (CNMPs), a formal document for managing nutrients based around federal guidelines, would be created for all members. For members who already have CNMPs, they would be updated, Ricke said.
The alliance has a three-year plan for services. After that, results will be evaluated and organizers will determine any future needs and plan from there, Ricke said.
The alliance also will help farmers become eligible for financial and technical incentives created by the $320 million Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), Ricke said.
The Grand Lake Watershed was designated a priority area in the MRBI, potentially making it eligible for some of the funds farmers could use to implement conservation practices that improve water quality. Local watershed officials still have to apply for and be accepted as a grant recipient.
Mercer County has the highest concentration of large livestock farms in the state, most of which are located in the Grand Lake Watershed.
The AQWA is just one of many entities working on the lake's water quality problems.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) ratcheted up its focus on Grand Lake after the algae toxin was reported and took action.
First, it greatly encouraged the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District to switch a $191,000 grant for farmers with land in the Wabash River Watershed to those in the Grand Lake Watershed. The money will be used to help farmers install conservation practices to improve water quality.
Then David Hanselmann, chief of ODNR's Division of Soil and Water Resources, directed local officials to begin using a team approach to address water quality concerns in the watershed.
This act directed Grand Lake/Wabash Watershed Alliance Coordinator Laura Walker to begin regular meetings with state and local officials on ways to help the lake. Part of this also included sending individuals out to knock on farmers' doors and get them on board.
Finally, the state brought together various local, state and federal officials to draft a nutrient management strategy for Grand Lake. The plan was unveiled the middle of November to a crowd of nearly 200 community members.
It appears that the alliance's goals are in line with the manure nutrient management strategy. During the unveiling, Hanselmann said he was optimistic that within two to three years, each of the 300 livestock operations in the watershed would have a comprehensive nutrient management plan.
Walker, whose hours and funds have been cut due to statewide budget shortfalls, welcomed the formation of the group.
"It seems like a good idea and it builds on what we have been working on in our role as a government agency," she said. "It looks like a way for those who are interested in using the private sector to understand what they can do to ultimately improve water quality at their facilities and on their property."
Ricke said it's finally time for watershed farmers to take control of their own destiny and fix issues that have plagued the lake for many years, or risk the chance that new, stricter regulations might force them into unpleasant choices.
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