Michigan experienced complaints of “algal conditions” in 102 different water bodies in 2020, according to the Department of Environment, Great Leaks and Energy. The department also listed eight lakes as impaired by nutrients, and it targeted twelve for additional sampling.
A report from the department’s Water Resources Division describes these increases as “consistent with worldwide trends and ... expected to continue.”
Government regulations have failed to fix the problem of nutrient pollution that results in harmful algal blooms. But as the algal blooms increase, so do the regulations.
Runoff from fertilizer use can lead to increased algae growth and, in extreme cases, harmful algal blooms, as shown in Mackinac Center research. When the algae die, the decomposition process consumes oxygen in the water, often creating dead zones that are unable to support wildlife and recreation. The algal blooms can also produce cyanotoxins that can cause stomach and liver illnesses, breathing difficulties, and neurological disorders in people. Southern Michigan, where runoff from agricultural, industrial, and residential use is relatively high, sees the most algal blooms.
State government has been working on this problem for more than half a century. Michigan established its first water quality standards in 1968 to control phosphorus discharges and “to prevent adverse effects on water treatment processes, or the stimulation of nuisance growths of aquatic plants and algae that might become injurious to designated water uses.” Point-source pollutants, which are pollutants from a specific location like a plant or factory, were specifically targeted in 1973 revisions to the water quality standards. But very little effort went into addressing nonpoint pollution. That did not happen until the late 1980s. Nonpoint pollution occurs when water “mov[es] over or through the ground,” picking up “natural and human-made pollutants.”
The Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy reports that stepped-up enforcement between 2007 to 2012 led to restoration of 34 nutrient-impaired water bodies. From 2013 to 2016, shifts in funding and departmental priorities turned the agency’s attention away from goals to reduce sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen concentrations. Consequently, nonpoint discharges still impair Michigan surface water.
While government regulations have failed to stop nonpoint source pollution, they have harmed Michigan farmers. Revisions in 2020 to the permitting processes for concentrated animal feeding operations led to restrictions on the timing and use of manure as a fertilizer. This has imposed what advocates of a robust agricultural economy say is an undue burden on costs, land use, planting schedules and crop yields.
Michigan farmers argue that manure can be applied without causing runoff concerns. In proper amounts and at the proper times, nutrients from it are “carefully controlled and held by the soil,” Southwest Michigan farmer Bob Dykhuis told Bridge Michigan when the new regulations were imposed.
Tightening state regulations just continues a policy that hurts farmers without reducing harmful algal blooms. Free-market solutions are more effective at reducing runoff. The state should leave farmers alone to operate in ways that are both economically and environmentally beneficial.
Tom Van Wagner, a specialist in soil and forestry health for the Natural Resource Conservation Service unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, notes that it is economically possible to reduce phosphorus fertilizer use at big commercial farms, without losing crop yield. Microirrigation, or drip irrigation, is another promising way to reduce runoff. Spray or sprinkler irrigation loses about 35% of applied water to evaporation, while flood, or furrow, irrigation, which is extremely cheap to operate, loses between 40% to 50% to evaporation and runoff.
With drip irrigation, water moves through pipes or tubing that is run along or just below the surface of the ground where the crop is growing. Small holes allow the water to drip slowly onto the ground at the base of the plant.
This technology greatly reduces the amount of water used. Though it can be very expensive to install, it may still be an economical choice for farmers. Drip irrigation can “reduce a farm’s water consumption by as much as 60 percent and increase crop yield by 90 percent,” according to MIT News.
Vaclav Smil, an energy and environment researcher and emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba, estimates that the nitrogen and phosphorus remaining in crop residues — the materials leftover after a crop harvest — “is equivalent to approximately 30% of each nutrient contained in synthetic fertilizers.” Recycled crop residues can increase yields by returning nutrients to the soil as they decompose, while also reducing nutrient pollution. But instead of recycling these residues back into the soil, Smil reports, affluent nations burn around 25% of crop residues, while developing nations burn 45%. Inexpensive methods used to clear fields may, then, impose substantial fertilizer costs.
Recycling crop residues also helps to reduce erosion and increase water storage capacity by trapping particles and moisture in organic matter. Smil explains that these residues are not waste but “providers of essential environmental services” with great additional economic value.
The question of how to address the ongoing issue of nutrient pollution in Michigan’s water resources is pressing. But more government regulation is clearly not the only answer. Strict new restrictions that add financial burdens will do more damage than giving the state’s farmers room to make economically beneficial and environmentally helpful decisions.
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