Farmers are taking the heat for the Lake Erie algae bloom that prompted a water ban in Toledo, Ohio, just over a week ago.

On Aug. 2, nearly half a million residents in northwest Ohio were told not to drink or use the water, after two sample readings from a local water treatment plant tested above the “Do Not Drink” recommended 1 microgram per liter standard for microcystin.

Microcystin is a bacteria released from algae blooms that can cause liver damage in humans and kill pets and wildlife. The ban was lifted 2 days later.

While the scare has rightfully served as a wake-up call for the algae problems the western basin of Lake Erie has been facing in recent years, it’s also caused a lot of finger pointing on who’s to blame — namely at farmers. Some experts are blaming no-till practices, saying they leave phosphorus more stratified near the soil surface and prone to runoff.

There’s no denying that phosphorus runoff does contribute to these algae blooms. And yes, some of that comes from agriculture. But an article from the science and technology magazine Wired says that with best-management practices, farms only lose an average of about 2% of applied fertilizer.

And what about golf courses, sewage treatment plants and other sources that discharge into waterways? At Lake Champlain, located along the border of New York and Vermont, it was discovered that about half of the lake’s phosphorus problem comes from developed land. Experts with Lake Champlain’s Lawn To Lake organization say one acre of urban/suburban land, “contributes about four times more phosphorus to the lake than one acre of farm land.”

It’s not to imply farmers shouldn’t do everything possible to reduce fertilizer runoff, whether it’s seeding cover crops to hold nutrients in place, only applying the amount of fertilizer needed to meet plant needs, or placing fertilizers in-furrow instead of broadcasting them. 

Wired says the problem is volume — there is so much land in the Lake Erie watershed that is applied with fertilizer that even the small amounts that run off are still enough to cause problems.

But casting all blame on farmers is a mistake. Doing so not only hurts farmers, but the effort to protect our bodies of water as well. Agriculture isn’t the only industry that should be held responsible for the conditions that lead to algae blooms, and it probably isn’t the only industry that can fix it.

Let's look a little deeper and do our best to find a well-rounded answer to the problem.

Laura Allen,
Associate Editor
No-Till Farmer