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How drones could limit fertilizer flow into Lake Erie

September 9, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
A toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie this summer left the city of Toledo, Ohio, without drinking water for three days. Now environmentalists and farmers are working to prevent future blooms by evaluating fertilizer use in hopes of cutting excess runoff. Special correspondent Christy McDonald of Detroit Public Television reports on how drones may be a tool for maximizing crops and minimizing pollution.

GWEN IFILL: Now, in the aftermath of the water quality emergency that plagued Lake Erie last month, some residents who live along its shores are calling for solutions.  And they are looking outward, to the countryside.

Reporter Christy McDonald of Detroit Public Television has our story.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Farmer Jeff Sandborn thinks this drone could help solve the tainted water problem that left Toledo, Ohio without access to safe drinking water for three days earlier this summer.  That’s because experts believe the toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie that turned tap water noxious was caused by the fertilizer runoff from farms like Sandborn’s throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

JEFF SANDBORN, Owner, Sandborn Farms: We only have so much land that can grow crops, productive crops.  And this planet continues to have more people on it, so we have to do a better job on the land we have and get more out of the resources we put in, get higher yields to feed more people, is what it boils down to.  We’re here to feed an ever-growing population.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Unfortunately, pressure to increase food production can have a negative impact on the environment, and, today, many are convinced Lake Erie’s problem starts on the farm.

Fertilizers that feed crops, like nitrogen and phosphorus, also feed the blue-green algae in the water.  Experts believe changes in farming practices have led to an increased amount of phosphorus runoff in recent years.

Kristy Meyer works for the Ohio Environmental Council, an advocacy group, where part of her time is spent sharing with other farmers best management practices for controlling runoff.

KRISTY MEYER, Managing Director, Ohio Environmental Council: So we have moved away from those small quaint farms to these larger farms.  We are spraying it out over the fields with huge equipment.  And it just sits on top of the soil.  But when we have these extreme storm events, it carries those fertilizers right off the land.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Right off the land and into the rivers and streams that feed into major drinking water supplies.  But how can farmers prevent runoff from their fields?  Part of the answer is not overusing fertilizer.

Larry Antosch from the Ohio Farm Bureau says farmers would agree with that.

LARRY ANTOSCH, Senior Director, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation: The biggest cost that a farmer has is their fertilizer bill, and so if I put on two extra pounds of a nutrient, then that’s money essentially I’m throwing away.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: For Sandborn, using fertilizer efficiently is a no-brainer.

JEFF SANDBORN: Everything that I do on a field costs me money, whether it’s the seed I buy, the fertilizer I use, the chemicals that are applied.  I want to grow the most crop I can out of that given unit of fertilizer.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Increasing the amount of fertilizer doesn’t necessarily mean a farmer will see an increase in the amount of crops he or she is able to produce.  That’s why Sandborn has teamed up with Michigan State University researcher Bruno Basso.

Basso’s drone provides farmers with detailed maps, which can help them determine exactly how much fertilizer is needed in a specific location of a field, maximizing crop yield and minimizing harmful nutrient runoff.

BRUNO BASSO, Michigan State University: So a uniform application that normally a farmer does, by definition, he overestimates this input in one area, and he underestimates the input in the other area.  And so that’s — one size fits all is not the case in agriculture, because there is a lot of variability.  So, in the end, what does the drone do?  It tells us about that variability.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Understanding field variability is one part of the puzzle, but for all that information to be useful, a farmer has to know what practical measures to take.

That’s why Basso is also developing a predictive modeling software that allows a farmer to digitally test out a fertilizer application.

BRUNO BASSO: You can simulate your field, and you compare two nitrogen treatments.  You basically learn that, 80 percent of the time, 100 kilograms will give you the same response as 200 kilograms, or maybe 100 percent of the time.  So if you get that kind of confidence, why use the 200?

CHRISTY MCDONALD: For Sandborn, implementing new technology to increase fertilizer efficiency is more than a smart business decision.

JEFF SANDBORN: We want to do the best we can with every year we get to farm.  And so anything that Bruno’s doing or, you know, as this technology moves forward, it’s going to help me do a better job at what I’m doing and help agriculture in general.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Experts agree, doing a better job means incorporating a suite of fertilizer best-management practices known in the agricultural community as the four R’s.  That’s right fertilizer source, applied at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place.

LARRY ANTOSCH: Four-R program really looks at blending together conservation practices for nutrient management, that protect the economic, the social and environmental concerns of — of society and of the farmer themselves.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Farmers say practices recommended in the four R’s make sense, like avoiding fertilizer application before a large storm, where it will wash off the crops and into nearby rivers and streams.  And perhaps that’s why many say they are already doing the right thing.

LARRY ANTOSCH: Agricultural community has been engaged in the discussions early on to — to be part of the solution.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Lana Pollack, the United States section chair of the International Joint Commission overseeing the Great Lakes, believes these types of voluntary conservation efforts are a step in the right direction, but they simply don’t go far enough.  That’s why she thinks government regulation of fertilizer use is necessary.

LANA POLLACK, United States Section Chair, International Joint Commission: No one wants to ruin a lake.  No one wants to deny people their drinking water, for heaven’s sakes.  And no one wants to waste money putting on phosphorous that’s going to fertilize the lake, instead of their — their — their corn.  But it’s not working.  So, whatever they’re doing is clearly not enough.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Farm-lobbying groups, like the Ohio Farm Bureau, would prefer conservation and best-management practices remain voluntary for farmers.

LARRY ANTOSCH: They like to be able to have control of their operation, have the ability to oversee and to make the management decisions that they want to do or the things that are most appropriate to them, vs. a regulatory approach, in which everyone must do the same thing.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: But to environmental advocates, the time for voluntary conservation on the part of farmers is over.  They argue that more regulation of the agricultural sector is necessary to reduce the toxic blooms.

KRISTY MEYER: If I want to open up a business, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to apply for a number of permits.  So, agriculture is really a business.  I mean, in Ohio, it’s our number one industry.  So, maybe it should be started to treat like a business.  It’s not just an Ohio problem.  It’s not just a Lake Erie problem.  It isn’t just a national problem.  It’s an international problem.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: The U.S. and Canada are working to create new targets for how much phosphorus can flow into the lake.  Those might be announced this fall.

And the International Joint Commission, which has no regulatory power, is encouraging state, federal, and international lawmakers to start enacting policy that will clean up the Great Lakes.

GWEN IFILL: Detroit Public Television is co-hosting a conference on the future of the Great Lakes this week.  Topics range from algae blooms to the threat of plastics in the water to concerns about oil pipelines.  You can watch it all in a live-stream on our Web site.  Check the Rundown for times.