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Taking the 4Rs approach to saving Lake Erie

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To read more about The Nature Conservancy's Western Lake Erie Basin project, go to www.nature.org/wleb.

Monday, April 29, 2013 - 12:01 am

In 2011, a green slime covered the surface of Lake Erie's western basin. Boaters had to chug through 12 miles of the stuff to get to open water.

Fertilizer you applied on your lawn in Fort Wayne or on area farm fields may have contributed to the mess. But the new 4Rs Certification initiative hopes to change that.

“We should have the final version by winter,” said Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, the western Lake Erie basin project coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

The environmental conservation organization has been working since 1992 in northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio to improve water quality in streams and rivers. The project expanded in 2010 to address water-quality problems across the basin draining into western Lake Erie.

The project area now includes northeast Indiana, whose Maumee River is one of the largest water sources for western Lake Erie, as well as portions of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

When it is implemented, farmers and businesses that apply fertilizer voluntarily would go through training to become certified in using the 4Rs approach — Right source, Right rate, Right time and Right place.

Following the 4Rs means people applying fertilizer should:

Have soil tested — every two or three years for farmers and every five or six years for homeowners — to make sure fertilizer being applied contains only the nutrients the soil needs.

For example, phosphorus, which triggers the Lake Erie algae blooms, helps promote root growth, while nitrogen promotes green color. If you have an established lawn, it doesn't need phosphorus, Vollmer-Sanders said.

You can tell what nutrients are in a fertilizer, and in what proportion, by looking at its ratio: A 100-pound bag of 10-0-10 fertilizer, for example, would include 10 pounds of nitrogen, zero phophorus, 10 pounds of potassium and 80 pounds of filler.

Apply the correct amount of fertilizer, based on the what the soil needs.

Never fertilize if 1/2-inch or more of rain is forecast to fall within the next 48 hours. The rain will wash fertilizer into streams, sending unwanted nutrients down to Lake Erie.

Always apply fertilizer on the ground that needs it — not on other surfaces, such as sidewalks and driveways.

“If it's on the sidewalk, it's not doing anyone any good, except the algae,” Vollmer-Sanders said.

The 4Rs program is designed mainly for farmers and the companies that apply fertilizer on farm land, but the same concepts apply to anyone using fertilizer, from homeowners to lawn-care services, school districts and city parks departments, she said.

Improving water quality in area streams and in Lake Erie will have economic as well as environmental benefits, she said.

The green slime that covered Lake Erie's western basin in 2011 hurt boating, fishing and tourism, she said. When the algae that created the slime died, the decomposition robbed the water of oxygen, forcing fish to flee for healthier water.

Water-treatment plants also must spend more to treat river or lake water to remove fertilizer, algae or other pollutants. Toledo, for example, which draws its water from Lake Erie, spent an extra $500,000 in 2011 to treat residents' drinking water because it had to remove the green slime, Vollmer-Sanders said.

The 4Rs approach should greatly reduce the amount of fertilizer — and phosphorus, in particular — that runs off into streams and sets off the Lake Erie algae blooms, she said.

The project also is being watched closely by groups in other parts of the country, she said, and 4Rs certification could be rolled out in those areas if it works well here.