One take home that is really useful. Tie all subsidies to cover crops. It may well be to support actual propduction but what is most valuable is the winter cover crop. It is a case of forcing the right idea in terms of husbandry.
Long term, much else needs to also be done. but this is actually most of the fertilizer problem. And if you then plow it in, you have converted the excess fertilizer into plant based fertilizers.
Just this policy change though can get so much done in a mere decade.
If you want to clean up the largest pollution spill in the country, one unaltered by decades of work and billions of dollars, you need to spend a lot of time making tiny measurements. Most of them will only confirm the depressing trend: More and more contaminants are winding their way from farms into rivers and streams.
On a foggy November morning, between gently rolling fields, Jennifer Tank, a biology professor at the University of Notre Dame, and two of her graduate students dressed in waders lowered themselves into the Shatto ditch, a 45-minute drive from South Bend. They stretched a measuring tape across the water and began taking readings. One of the students, Shannon Speir, held a metal rod with a bulb on the end where the ankle-deep water met waist-high grass. The device registered the streamflow’s pressure against the bulb and transmitted this information to a digital display she had slung over one shoulder.
“Point-oh-two, grass,” Speir called up to the other grad student, Matt Trentman, who jotted down the number indicating how fast water was flowing through the grass at the edge of the channel. Then she moved the rod over an inch and took another measurement. After doing that all the way across the ditch and filling plastic tubes to test the water back at the lab, they moved a dozen yards upstream to a drain pipe conveying water from a nearby field for another set of measurements. Students working with Tank and her collaborator, Todd Royer, a scientist at the Indiana University, Bloomington, have been at this every two weeks for the last seven years. Add that to the expensive devices automatically measuring water quality every half hour, and the storm-chasing measurements Trentman makes when it starts to rain.
“Occasionally we do sampling every hour for 24 hours to see how things change throughout the day,” Trentman said, pencil in one hand, aluminum clipboard in the other. It’s a mountain of drudgery bringing microscopic focus to an unremarkable swath of land. This bit of Indiana is small in size, but large in the promise it represents: By braving sleet, pre-dawn hours, and the occasional rogue muskrat, a team of scientists has been able to show that it’s possible for farmers to keep their fertilizer from running off their land and causing problems downstream.
As far as I can tell — and I spent a lot of time looking — there’s only one place in the country where conservation measures have found a fix for this dilemma: the Shatto ditch.
So much fertilizer flushes out of Corn-Belt ditches that it forms an oxygen-starved “dead zone” at the point where the Mississippi enters the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on the year, the size of this dead zone runs from 2,000 to 8,000 square miles, from the size of Delaware to that of New Jersey. Before reaching the ocean, fertilizers feed algae blooms that turn lakes into toxic slime; evaporate into the air in the form of asthma-triggering, climate-warming gases; and contaminate drinking water, causing blue baby syndrome, which prevents infants from absorbing oxygen. In 1997, the federal government formed a hypoxia task force in an effort to stem the flow of fertilizer pollution. Today, the government spends about $6 billion every year on the problem, but all that money has not made a detectable difference in the dead zone, the regular algae blooms in Lake Erie, and the health risks posed by fertilizer.
Even if you trace the mess upstream to small creeks and ponds, it’s hard to find any place that’s managed to clean itself up. Back in August, I’d set out to see if I could find a success story, one that might offer a template for others to follow. I started by contacting the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency formed after the Dust Bowl to help farmers take care of their land. The agency pointed me to Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where after 10 years of painstaking work, farmers and environmentalists had cleaned up the town’s drinking water enough to turn off a machine that had been removing fertilizer from the town well. I thought I’d found my story, until I learned that, after a couple rainy years, Kutztown had to turn the machine back on. Fertilizer pollution had returned to historic highs.
After several more dead ends, I finally found my way to the Shatto ditch, where a team run by Tank and Royer had documented lasting improvements in the area over the past seven years. Even during spring showers, they’d seen the sort of drop in pollution that would be needed to clean up the dead zone roughly 1,000 miles south — and that’s despite more rainfall, the main driver of nutrient runoff.
It’s clear there was a real change in this watershed. What was happening in Indiana? I made plans to go and see for myself.
It all started as a modest project by a collection of nonprofits, local agencies, and farmers to clean up the Tippecanoe River, one of the most important rivers in the United States for ecological diversity, and one of the last remaining healthy homes for the Midwest’s shellfish. It’s home to nearly 50 species of mussels, including threatened and endangered species with fantastic names: sheepnose, clubshell, fanshell, rabbitsfoot, and snuffbox.
In 2006, The Nature Conservancy proposed widening the Shatto ditch to keep these mussels from getting smothered under silt. The wider ditch would act more like a natural creek, with a floodplain that would allow high water to spread out and slow down during storms. The slower the water moves, the less sediment it carries.
The project also couldn’t get anywhere without the county surveyor, Mike Kissinger, in charge of maintaining all the drainage ditches. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, helped secure federal grants, and scientists like Tank took on the duty of testing whether anything worked.
This coalition managed to widen the first half mile of the ditch in 2007. Then they doubled down, aiming to widen the rest of it and simultaneously convince the farmers whose land straddles the waterway to plant cover crops that might catch fertilizer before it left their fields.
A cover crop is simply something grown over the winter, when fields are usually bare. Rye grass, clover, and other plants hold fertilizer and soil with their roots, preventing it from washing downstream. Initially, 12 percent of fields draining into the Shatto ditch had cover crops, which the group managed to increase to 67 percent. Nationwide, just 4 percent of farmland grows cover crops.
Bob Foltz, who had been farming in the area for 65 of his 82 years, was already planting cover crops before the project began. But he was dead set against losing land to the second stage of the ditch. “I stated before they even dug this damn ditch that cover crops would be more efficient,” he told me.
The group proposed putting all of the floodplain on the far side of the ditch where it ran past Foltz’s field, which meant he’d lose a lot less land. Foltz begrudgingly allowed the bulldozers through his land, but remained dubious. “To me, it’s just too damn much money,” he told me, never mind that the government would be paying the cost.
Kissinger made the case to farmers that widening the ditch would save them money in the long run. In theory, no one will ever have to scoop mud out of this ditch again. “It starts to silt up periodically and you have to go in and dip it back out every 5, 8, or 15 years,” Kissinger said. “In the long run, we think it’s going to be a tremendous savings.”+
After backhoes finished moving mud to widen another 4 miles of the ditch in early 2018, the biggest flood in years hit the area. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to blow out,’” Tank, the Notre Dame professor, recalled. “But instead the floodwaters rose out onto those bare floodplains and slowed down, the particles settled, and we saw these streaks of sand forming.”
It’s basic hydrology. As water loses speed, it drops more of the dirt and sand it’s carrying, forming a rippled pattern on the streambed. Galloping, muddy floods become clear-running rills.
The wider ditch and cover crops also succeeded in cleaning up the floodwater, which wasn’t entirely surprising. “We already know what works. I think we have identified the tools we’re going to use to address the problem,” Royer said. The trick is in getting enough landowners to embrace them.
As I talked to the people involved in the project, and then drove around northern Indiana to meet them in person, I organized the stories they told me about why it had worked into three categories: meetings, momentum, and money. No one emphasized meetings, per se: Instead they talked in vague terms about “the power of partnerships.” I confided to Jamie Scott, a farmer on the Kosciusko County Soil and Water Conservation District board, that all this fuzzy talk hinted at a fraught process. In my mind, partnerships meant meetings, and in my experience community meetings are dominated by the loudest, most self-serving voices.
A smile spread over Scott’s face as I spoke. “Everything you are describing is what happened in this watershed,” he responded.
There would be more obstacles in the way. One member of the group — with the clout to stop the project — had gotten the contract to excavate the first section of the ditch, and assumed that he’d do the rest of the work, but didn’t get the job. When NBC showed a video featuring the project during a Notre Dame football game, some people were upset that it didn’t mention their roles. People with strong personalities, like Mike Long, a farmer who had a different idea for the design of a portion of the new ditch, clashed with more soft-spoken sensibilities.
“There’s times people would have liked to have taken him out back and dug a hole and buried him,” Scott said. “There’s other times it wouldn’t have got by without him.” Every time a conflict threatened to blow up the group, they managed to smooth things over.