Innovative Approaches to Addressing Stormwater Pollution in the Saginaw Bay Watershed

Innovative Approaches to Addressing Stormwater Pollution in the Saginaw Bay Watershed

By Karol Smith, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that some 70% of all water pollution stems from stormwater runoff. For the Saginaw Bay watershed, which drains part or all of some 22 counties, stormwater runoff from agricultural fields is a major concern for the health of area waterways and the bay itself. The following story, reprinted by permission from the U.S. EPA website, describes one group of farmers working to change all that.

The Innovative Farmers of Michigan is a group of agricultural producers, supported by more than 60 partners representing the agricultural industry, lenders, equipment companies, commodity groups, and federal, state, and local agencies. The group’s two primary objectives are reducing the amount of sediment entering the Saginaw Bay and altering farming practices to reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff while retaining profitability for the farmer. “All my fields drain to large ditches, to larger ditches, and eventually to Saginaw Bay,” says Pat Sheridan of Tuscola Innovative Farmers, “and I don’t want my soil in the bay.”

In 1996 the Michigan State University Extension in Huron County received a section 319 grant of $71,863 for a 3-year Innovative Farmers project. The Innovative Farmers aimed to reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, and increase family farm income by using reduced tillage, cover crops, and a totally integrated system.

Confronting Traditional Farming Practices
Before the Innovative Farmers, reducedtillage corn and soybean cropping systems had been successfully used throughout the Midwest. Michigan farmers, however, were reluctant to use high-residue cropping systems for beans and sugar beets because such high-value crops would still make fall-spring tillage profitable. In addition, many farmers in the area assumed that it wasn’t possible to warm the soil in the spring, prepare a good seed bed in heavier soils, and achieve adequate weed control without tilling in the fall and the following spring.

The key to the Innovative Farmers’ success was that rather than relying on research and information provided by other sources, the group designed and conducted the studies themselves. In one of the first studies undertaken by the group, 14 producers collected 127 water samples from their tile outlets. Concentrations and flow rates were used to determine the extent of nutrients and the associated dollar loss from their fields. This activity helped producers better understand the nutrient and soil interactions, as well as the impacts on water quality.

Valuable Findings
Studies conducted by the Innovative Farmers yielded many valuable findings for area farmers. Conservation tillage did not reduce yields of sugar beets, corn, and dry beans when compared to conventional tillage. In fact, corn yields significantly increased at one of the demonstration sites. Farmers also learned that the soil’s capacity to supply nitrogen to a growing crop increases with conservation tillage. Although phosphorus applications ceased for 6 years, the soil fertility levels did not decrease.

At the end of the project, the water holding capacity and water infiltration rates were also higher for the limited-tillage sites. Conservation tillage reduced the potential for soil erosion from water by up to 70 percent and from wind by up to 60 percent, as compared to conventional tillage.

These results are making a difference. Several farmers in the area have converted their operations to zone till in the past 2 years. (In zone till, only a small area is tilled at planting. The result is a conventional seedbed in the immediate seed zone while the rest of the field remains untilled and covered with residue to promote soil conservation.) Innovative Farmers members also report the increasing use of the chisel tillage system and cover crops by their neighbors. As these systems are used on a wider scale, others will adopt them as they see the success of fellow farmers. That is just what the Innovative Farmers hoped to accomplish.

For more information:
Karol Smith, Michigan DEQ, ESSD-RLOCS
Constitution Hall, 3rd Floor South
P.O. Box 30457, Lansing, MI 48909-7957


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