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Cultivating Your Clean Water

Fertilizers and Freshwater Conservation


"Dead Zone" slideshow

No matter where you live, you have an impact on the health of our marine environments.

Green Choices for Lawn and Garden

You can protect your water supplies.

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Story Highlights
  • The Conservancy is cultivating your clean water by: fighting for stricter common sense limits and improved drainage ditch regulations, and for federal Farm Bill Programs that set aside floodplain; conserving and restoring nutrient-absorbing wetlands and forests; and helping farmers develop water-friendly agricultural drainage systems.

"The environment is a farmer's business.  It's central to everything we do." - Tony Murry

When rain falls on Tony Murry’s cornfield, much of it soaks into the ground to help his crops grow, but the rest drains into Central Ohio’s Big Darby Creek, a national scenic river.

Murry knows that what he and his father do on their farm affects water quality downstream, and he’s taking extra steps to make sure the water coming off his farm runs clear.

“The environment is a farmer’s business,” Murry says. “It’s central to everything we do.”

Murry knows that nutrients from fertilizers have been clogging our waterways, leading to fish kills and polluting drinking water sources. The issue of fertilizer pollution made news last summer, when toxic algae was so thick that state officials warned people to stay out of the water altogether at numerous recreational lakes around the state. About the same time, researchers at Heidelberg University reported record amounts of dissolved phosphorus in the Maumee River and the nearby Sandusky River, both of which empty into Lake Erie—part of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.

“What happens to our water directly affects us,” says Jeff Reutter, Director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, OSU’s Stone Laboratory and trustee for The Nature Conservancy in Ohio. “We are fortunate that Ohio has an abundant supply of fresh water, but if we don’t keep it clean, our ability to use it safely is greatly reduced.”

Are We Fertilizing Our Fresh Water to Death? 

When concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus get too high in water, they feed algae the same way your fertilizer feeds your lawn.

During warm weather, blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are produced, which is capable of producing toxins that can kill fish, birds, animals and people, Reutter says.

When the algae die, they sink to the bottom where they are decomposed by bacteria. “That decomposition process often consumes all of the oxygen in the bottom layer of the Central Basin of Lake Erie and creates the “dead zone” where many fish cannot survive,” Reutter says. Ohio’s nutrient-polluted water also contributes to a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, by way of the Ohio River and then the Mississippi River, which drains directly into the Gulf.

Stopping Nutrients at the Source

The Conservancy has been working on the ground with partners to stop nutrient pollution at its source. “In heavily farmed areas like the Maumee River Basin, we’re helping farmers develop water-friendly agricultural drainage systems,” says Anthony Sasson, freshwater conservation manager for the Conservancy in Ohio.

Along other major tributaries to Lake Erie and the Ohio River, the Conservancy is conserving and restoring nutrient-absorbing wetlands and forests.

“And in the headwaters of Big Darby Creek, we’re restoring the Darby’s natural flow and reconnecting the stream to its floodplain, which will help the river naturally remove excess nutrients,” Sasson says.

On the policy front, the Conservancy has been fighting for stricter common sense limits and improved drainage ditch regulations, and for federal Farm Bill Programs that set aside floodplain land.

On Murry’s farm, grass filter strips and no-till agriculture slow the water coming off his fields and prevents erosion. A planned off-season crop of Austrian winter pea will further reduce erosion and naturally add nitrogen to the soil.

“Generations of farmers used cover crops to improve soil quality before the widespread availability of inexpensive fertilizers,” Murry says. “Cover crops can hold those valuable fertilizers within the soil and even add nutrients back. That benefits my bottom line and the environment.” 

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