While Earth Day stirs up a lot of feel-good intentions, the story of one easily overlooked Michigan river is a telling tale of how the conscientious—and voluntary—actions of farmers can make an impact on overall health of a regional ecosystem.
From its inauspicious source tucked amongst the Irish Hills to its inauspicious mouth at Monroe—where it empties into Lake Erie in the shadow of a massive power plant—the 150 miles of the River Raisin don't make much of a mark on the Michigan landscape.
Its watershed drains a little more than 1,000 square miles of rich Michigan soil, including most of Lenawee County and portions of Monroe, Washtenaw, Jackson and Hillsdale counties. (One tiny corner dips south into Fulton County, Ohio.)
In the context of a state that so closely identifies with a unique abundance of fresh water, the River Raisin (whose name dates to the region's time under French control, three centuries ago) is of minor stature geographically, but this year has asserted itself as a giant bellwether, signaling loud and clear that the conscientious implementation of environmental stewardship practices on farms can help protect the Great Lakes from harm.
While an afterthought to some Michigan residents, Lake Erie's water quality has become headline material in the wake of increasingly severe algal blooms in the western end of the lake. And once the Blame Game board is laid out, most fingers point straight to agriculture as the culprit, and specifically to phosphorous loads linked to agricultural nutrient applications.
"And that is where we have great news," said Laura Campbell, manager of agricultural ecology at Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB), referring to data released earlier this year by the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Clarifying that the raw data actually originated from a comprehensive water quality evaluation program based at Heidelberg University in nearby Tiffin, Ohio, Campbell explained that the DEQ's role came in illustrating how that data showed that a substantial decline in the River Raisin's phosphorous load.
"Heidelberg's flow-meter data shows a 36 percent decrease in total phosphorus loading in the River Raisin since 2008," Campbell said. "That was the year the state set a goal to cut phosphorous loading into Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025, so for us to realize a 36 percent decrease here in 2016—nine years ahead of that deadline—that's encouraging news."
Campbell said even a cursory glance at land use in the watershed shows that only decreased agricultural input can account for such a dramatic decline over the past eight years.
"It's easy to pick out the point sources—mainly wastewater treatment plants—their phosphorous loading is already tracked individually," Campbell explained. "More than 75 percent of that land in the watershed is in agricultural production. That's where the changes have been happening, and that's where the gains—or losses, really—have been realized.
"We've seen enormous success stopping phosphorus from getting into the river thanks to conservation programs through Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP)," Campbell said.
A purely voluntary program in place for more than 15 years, MAEAP challenges farmers to identify and mitigate potential pollution sources on their farms. To date hundreds of Michigan farms have amassed more than 3,000 verifications in one of MAEAP's three core systems, farmstead, cropping and livestock.
For more information, visit www.maeap.org.