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Western Lake Erie Basin Project

The sun shines on Lake Erie, OH on Aug. 15, 2014. USDA photo by Garth Clark.

America’s Great Lakes, a series of five interconnected bodies of water, contain 21% of Earth’s fresh water, the largest accessible reservoir of fresh water on the planet. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, is also one of the most prolific. Approximately twelve million people live in the Lake Erie watershed, including seventeen metropolitan areas with more than 50,000 residents.

The lake not only provides 14 million people with drinking water, it acts as an economic catalyst, supporting a $16.8 billion tourism industry that includes a world-class fishery (Ohio Tourism Association 2019 Report). The lake is home to the second busiest port in the Great Lakes, which generates more than $90 million in economic activity (The Great Lakes Seaway Partnership 2017 Report). The farming industry also plays an important economic role in the region, growing $5.2 billion in commodity crops to supplement the nation’s food supply (2017 Census of Agriculture Data).

Though a valuable resource, Lake Erie is highly urbanized, industrialized and cultivated. The many demands placed on the lake have impacted its health. Sewage effluent, urban runoff and agricultural sediment loading flow into the lake, where its warm, shallow waters provide ideal conditions for algal blooms to grow and thrive. The blooms, composed of cyanobacteria, can produce toxins that are harmful to humans and animals, threatening Lake Erie’s ecosystem, the region’s drinking water and economic activities.

The Goals: The United States and Canada have formed a partnership to prioritize the restoration of Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. As part of that effort, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), along with five other federal agencies, state and other non-government, industry and academic partners, are dedicated to accelerating Lake Erie’s rehabilitation by reducing phosphorus loading through a number of collaborative projects and initiatives. By providing technical and financial assistance to farmers to implement conservation practices, NRCS can assist in the comprehensive effort to improve water quality, soil health and sustain the region’s economic viability.

USDA Video Showcases Key Partnerships Driving Science-Based Conservation in Western Lake Erie Basin

Science-Based Solutions: Leveraging Partnerships to Protect the Western Lake Erie Basin (Video) shows how USDA’s Conservation Effect Assessment Project (CEAP) watershed studies bring partners together to develop science-based solutions and strategically place them where they can deliver the greatest conservation benefits.

NRCS Plans & Accomplishments/Timeline Documents

Since 2004, the multi-agency Western Lake Erie Basin partnership has provided strategic funding to improve water quality within the basin.

Planning Documents

2005 Western Lake Erie Basin Water Resources Protection Plan Ohio, Indiana and Michigan (PDF): This project aims to protect and preserve the water resources of the Western Lake Erie Basin. By initiating a cooperative watershed planning process, both short and long-term water conservation needs in the basin can be met. Numerous Farm Bill programs as well as other Federal, State, local and nonprofit programs are available to assist basin landowners to adopt these conservation practices.

Project/Initiative Documents or Links

2005-2009 Rapid Watershed Assessments (PDF): One of the first things NRCS did for the WLEB partnership was to complete a watershed assessment for the 8 Digit HUC units in the Western Basin. The summary indicated a need for both conservation practice funding and technical assistance. NRCS allocated $3.5 million to local SWCDs in the basin to hire more conservationists, who work with farmers to promote and install water quality practices on farms in the basin.

Packard Project Impacting 2013 Farm Bill Initiatives for WLEB (PDF): The Lake Erie Stewardship Engagement Initiative hosted three Farm Bill Conservation Program forums focused on the Western Lake Erie Basin. These were held between August 2012 through August 2013. The forums brought together a select group of agricultural producers and conservation partners to identify priorities and solicit recommendations for improvement of USDA Farm Bill conservation programs. The substantive focus for this engagement was agriculture’s impact on water quality in Lake Erie and its tributaries, and the effectiveness of USDA’s conservation programs addressing the impact.

WLEB Initiative, FY 2016-2021(PDF): a 3-year, $41 million investment to target, expand, and accelerate conservation solutions by assessing the current conditions of an agricultural operation, outlining the actions that will have the greatest impact on nutrient and sediment reduction, and estimating the expected environmental benefits.

2014-2021 Tri-State Regional Conservation Partnership Program (PDF): This Western Lake Erie Basin Phosphorus Reduction Initiative protects the western basin of Lake Erie by reducing phosphorus (P) and sediment loading to decrease Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). Project partners have identified NRCS conservation practices and innovative demonstration practices that farmers can implement using Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACEP) funds to protect soil health, water quality, and prevent fish and wildlife degradation. The Western Lake Erie Basin Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) project was awarded $17.5 million. Ohio will receive about $12.25 million, which is split between EQIP, ACEP and technical assistance. An official report of this partnership will be added in 2021.

Proven Impacts

Effects of Conservation Practice Adoption on Cultivated Cropland Acres in Western Lake Erie Basin, 2003-06 and 2012 (PDF): This report quantifies the environmental benefits that farmers and conservation programs currently provide to society, and to explore prospects for attaining additional benefits with further or alternative conservation treatment.

Conservation Practice Adoption on Cultivated Cropland Acres: Effects on Instream Nutrient and Sediment Dynamics and Delivery in Western Lake Erie Basin, 2003-06 and 2012 (PDF): This report complements the Effects of Conservation Practice Adoption on Cultivated Cropland Acres in Western Lake Erie Basin but focuses on assessing the impacts of those edge-of-field impacts at the watershed scale (4-digit HUC), with consideration of watershed and instream processes.

Blanchard River Demonstrations Farm 2020 Report (PDF):  After five years, the Blanchard River Demonstration Farm Network, launched in 2015 by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), stands as a testament to the collaborative efforts of Ohio’s producers, researchers and supporting federal, state and local partners to improve water quality within the state. The three farms were selected to represent typical Ohio agricultural operations in the Western Lake Erie Basin. A variety of NRCS conservation practices were implemented to address site-specific resource concerns and management objectives. These practices were monitored for effectiveness in improving water quality, playing an important role in helping producers understand the benefits of conservation practices on the land and in achieving land management objectives.

NRCS 590 Standard (PDF): The Nutrient Management Standard (Code 590) is used to manage rate, source, placement and timing of plant nutrients and soil amendments while reducing environmental impacts. Conservation planners can use this practice on all fields where plant nutrients (commercial fertilizer and/or manures) are applied.