© David Ike

Stories in Ohio

Sustainable Agriculture in Ohio

The Nature Conservancy is working to secure healthy food and clean water without sacrificing the environment.

It was Saturday, August 2, 2014 when the City of Toledo issued a “Do Not Drink" advisory for residents. The algae-clogged waters of Lake Erie's western basin had produced the growth of dangerous toxins, leaving 500,000 in the Toledo area without drinking water for several days.

While Lake Erie’s harmful algal blooms (HABs) may be the most infamous, the problem affects lakes and rivers across the state, including the Ohio River, which in 2015 had a bloom more than 600 miles long.  The increase in blooms not only poses serious threats to human health and wildlife, it also impacts our economy. For example, researchers at The Ohio State University estimate algal blooms at Grand Lake St. Marys and Buckeye Lake cost Ohio homeowners $152 million in lost property value over six years.

Unfortunately, in recent years it’s not been a question of if there will be a harmful algal bloom, but rather when, how large and how toxic it will be. 

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is working to safeguard the state’s food security and abundant water supplies.  From Lake Erie, the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world, to the Ohio River, the 10th longest river in the United States, the state’s freshwater resources are nearly an embarrassment of riches.  

People living all over Ohio, as well as states downstream from us, from Indiana to Louisiana, depend on water that originates here. The Clean Water Act of 1972 made a huge difference to address water pollution from factories and sewers, but now other sources that are more difficult to control are the primary concern. 

Many factors contribute to the increased incidence and extent of HABs:

  • Fertilizer and manure run-off from agricultural lands
  • Combined sewer overflows, failing septic systems and wastewater treatment plants
  • Changing weather patterns, which results in warmer waters that provide ideal conditions for cyanobacteria growth
  • Increased intensity and volume of spring precipitation, which sends surges of nutrients into waterways

Unless we act now, the threats to our water and food supplies will worsen as the global demand for food increases by more than 50 percent in the next 30 years—creating one of the century’s paramount challenges.

TNC is working with leaders in agriculture, industry, government and universities to implement a three-pronged approach to deliver conservation at the scale needed to provide safe, clean water:

Nature-Based Solutions

Streams, wetlands, floodplains, and ponds are places where we have opportunities to protect and restore nature’s ability to capture, store and treat water on the landscape.  The Nature Conservancy and partners are working to restore one percent of agricultural acres (approximately 50,000 acres) to natural infrastructure in the Western Lake Erie Basin by adding wetlands, floodplains and riparian corridors to areas that already are frequently flooded, set aside, or considered marginal farmlands.  Restored lands help to absorb the excess nutrients and sediments that contribute to harmful algal blooms and mitigate devastating flood flows that can damage infrastructure.

Nutrient Management and Soil Health

Farming sustainably can deliver a host of environmental benefits by improving soil health and nutrient management. Among the benefits to nature are reduced soil erosion and nutrient loss, improved water quality, a lower carbon footprint, increased resilience to weather extremes and enhanced biodiversity.  Farming sustainably is also beneficial to farmers, generating improved crop yields, saving soil, reducing production costs, and lessening losses associated with changing weather patterns. The Nature Conservancy and partners are working to empower farmers with the resources and tools they need.

Water Management

Drainage tiles, sloped terrain and even soil quality can exacerbate the erosion and flooding issues that contribute to harmful algal blooms.  The Nature Conservancy is working with partners throughout Ohio to identify and demonstrate best practices that help slow the flow of water and treat it before it enters waterways by diverting it into small filters and recycling systems. Two stage ditches, saturated buffers, water control structures, vegetative buffers and drainage water recycling systems are just a few of the options available to stop nutrient losses at the edge of field.

Join the Discussion

Learn more about our work on TNC's Ohio Agriculture Facebook Group.

You Can Help

Help us ensure Ohio’s agricultural lands remain productive while safeguarding our important drinking water resources