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Reaping What We Sow

Protecting Water Quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin

What did you eat today? Odds are good that at some point you enjoyed food that was grown in Ohio.

It’s a state where one in six people is employed in some aspect of agriculture. A state where each year the food and agriculture industry contributes some $80 billion to the economy. A state with 11.5 million people who need to eat…and drink water.

Just as there’s no shortage of food produced, there’s no shortage of water in Ohio. Lake Erie—one of the world’s largest freshwater resources—supplies water to millions of people. But if we’re not careful, food production can contribute to poor water quality. Nowhere is this more evident than the Western Lake Erie Basin, where agriculture is king, and the intersection between food and water is crystal clear.

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, Western Lake Erie Basin Project Director for The Nature Conservancy, is helping to balance the needs of people and nature in this region.

“To restore more natural water flows, we’re working with the agricultural industry to improve drainage ditches, utilize wetlands to clean drainage water and implement the use of cover crops.”
— Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, Western Lake Erie Basin Project Director

Jessica Keith:

What is the connection between agriculture and water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin?

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders:

When the natural flow of the water off the land was altered to make way for agriculture, some of nature’s capacity to control flooding and erosion was lost. These changes in flow patterns, along with a loss of natural floodplain vegetation, increase sedimentation and polluted runoff, which contribute to dead zones and algal blooms.

Jessica Keith:

What are you doing to help mitigate the threats agriculture and other types of land use have on the health of Western Lake Erie’s watershed?

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders:

We’re focused on slowing the water down, which decreases the amount of nutrients and sediments carried to Lake Erie and helps to protect aquatic and terrestrial habitat. To restore more natural water flows, we’re working with the agricultural industry to improve drainage ditches, utilize wetlands to clean drainage water and implement the use of cover crops. We’ve also begun discussions with agricultural businesses to address nutrient management with the goal of expanding best management practices to the entire landscape. In particular, we are engaging fertilizer retailers to ensure that the 4Rs of right rate, right time, right place and right sources are being applied to manage nutrients within the watershed.

Jessica Keith:

Why is it important to coordinate conservation efforts across the basin?

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders:

Tourism and other industries in this region ultimately rely on healthy rivers and high-quality water. Leaving this gem to be overwhelmed by unsustainable agriculture and development would be catastrophic not just to our health, but also our economy.

Jessica Keith:

The role of Western Lake Erie Basin Project Director is a new one. Why are you the right person to head this effort?

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders:

Prior to coming to The Nature Conservancy I worked with the Farm Bureau, where I collaborated with farmers, conservation partners, legislators and regulators on environmental issues in Michigan. On a more personal note, I farm land in the area, so my husband and I have firsthand experience balancing finances with conservation options. We know we need to take care of the soil so we can enjoy the other natural resources on the farm, like the woods and wetlands—and all the wildlife that depend on them.


Jessica Keith is a conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy

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