Questions and Answers Submitted Online from Great Lakes Week 2012 Joint Session
Questions regarding Joint Session Nutrient Panel
QUESTION: What will it take to get Great Lake states to enact numeric water quality standards for phosphorus and nitrogen?
ANSWER A (Provided by Dave White, Chief, Natural Resource Conservation Service): NRCS is not involved with setting or enacting water quality standards. However, a portion of your question will be addressed by the renegotiated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada. Under ANNEX 4 Nutrients, the Parties shall establish substance objectives for total phosphorus concentrations for the open waters and nearshore areas of each lake. To achieve these total phosphorus concentration objectives, the Parties shall develop phosphorus loading allocations for each lake and apportion by country.
While NRCS does not develop water quality standards for phosphorus and nitrogen purposes, we provide assistance to farmers and landowners who voluntarily seek assistance in managing and controlling these nutrients. All of our conservation practice standards establish technical criteria for their effective implementation. Many of these conservation practices, when used in a systems approach, are effective in reducing nitrogen and phosphorous loading to rivers, streams and other water bodies. In the Great Lakes states, NRCS partners with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) to focus application of conservation systems to avoid, control, and trap these nutrients in priority watersheds to help achieve the GLRI goal of improving the near shore health of the Great Lakes.
ANSWER B (Provided by Melissa Malott, Water Director, Clean Wisconsin): There are a couple lessons other states can learn from Wisconsin’s experience passing the phosphorus rule. First, Wisconsin was under significant pressure from the EPA to pass a phosphorus rule. EPA is obligated under the Clean Water Act to have states set numeric standards for water pollutants, and hasn’t been very strong in forcing states to set these numeric standards for nutrients. Wisconsin groups took legal action to hold EPA to this obligation, and EPA in turn increased pressure on Wisconsin to pass a numeric standard for phosphorus.
Second, the implementing language for the numeric phosphorus standard made this rule much easier for the regulated community to achieve compliance. Meeting numeric phosphorus standards in the traditional way (technology upgrades) for many point sources in the state would be very expensive, and because most phosphorus comes from agricultural runoff, the point sources investment in control technology would largely not make a big difference in water quality. The implementing language Wisconsin passed has a new route for point sources to achieve compliance, called the Watershed Adaptive Management Option, and it allows point sources to meet permit requirements by cleaning up enough agricultural runoff that waters meet water quality standards. In effect, it allows point sources to address nonpoint source pollution rather than their own pollution, as long as they agree to clean up enough that the waters meet water quality standards.
I hope that other states can look at Wisconsin’s phosphorus rule and the Watershed Adaptive Management Option as a model for passing phosphorus numeric criteria. I don’t have the answer on nitrogen yet, as it’s more complicated and we haven’t determined a comparable model for it.
QUESTION: What policies or programs do you see being realizable in the near-term to significantly reduce agricultural sources of nutrients?
ANSWER A (Provided by Dave White, Chief, Natural Resource Conservation Service): Findings from the multi-agency Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) indicate the most effective way to increase protection of natural resources is to target conservation to the most vulnerable areas and to apply a systems rather than a practice-by-practice approach. Using a focused approach through our Landscape Conservation Initiatives, NRCS uses the best available science to identify key conservation systems and define geographic and other targeting approaches. Using this approach within GLRI, NRCS is in the first year of specifically targeting GLRI funds to reduce phosphorus loading to surface waters of priority watersheds. We are encouraged that this effort will reduce the agricultural contributions of nutrients to Great Lakes waters over time. With this initial $10 million of GLRI funds, NRCS has established priority watersheds with phosphorus loadings that may contribute to the occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms in the corresponding nearshore areas. Watersheds were selected based on a presence of watershed management plans, percentage of agricultural land, potential for high impact phosphorus reduction practices, and local interest. The priority sub-watersheds are located within the Maumee River, Saginaw River, and Lower Fox River watersheds.
ANSWER B (Provided by Melissa Malott, Water Director, Clean Wisconsin): Through Wisconsin’s Watershed Adaptive Management Option under the new phosphorus rule, point sources can meet permit requirements by effectively addressing agricultural runoff. Addressing agricultural runoff is probably best done at the local level, and will likely require engaging a farming leadership team to work with point sources to find an effective strategy that incorporates education and outreach, economic incentives, and/or upholding existing practice standards for farmers.
QUESTION: For Dereth Glance, IJC the Moderator: The IJC has been finally leading an effort to crosswalk Canadian and U.S. watershed mapping systems for better cross border management actions. A common wetland mapping component has not been addressed yet as part of the effort. Considering wetlands remove a significant amount of nutrients flowing into the Great Lakes System, don’t you think it would be a good idea to get the current and historical wetland maps on both side of the border pulled into the international watershed initiative?
ANSWER (Provided by Dereth Glance, IJC Commissioner): Thank you for your thoughtful question about Great Lakes wetlands. As you know, wetlands are nature’s kidney’s and provide critical benefits to water quality, wildlife and people, especially in the Great Lakes.
Mapping the historic and current existence of wetlands, as well as, wetland health, would be a useful tool. Since 1993, the IJC has recommended that Great Lakes basin governments complete an inventory of the location and quality of Great Lakes wetlands and conduct long-term monitoring of wetland health. Other organizations have taken a lead in tracking GL coastal wetlands health, such as the GL coastal wetlands consortium based at Central Michigan University. Tracking wetland health is also a critical component of the iterative adaptive management approach being developed by the IJC and our partners for the Great Lakes.
It is a good idea to have the maps available, as you describe. Existing priorities and time constraints present challenges for the IJC, but this has been a long standing recommendation and one that should be carefully considered in context of implementing the renewed GLWQA and other efforts to protect and restore Great Lakes wetlands.
QUESTION: For Kurt Heyman, SWCD: Scientific analysis has proven increased ag tiling has increased flows through streams and rivers creating flashy nutrient and sediment runoff. In other words, conservation tillage has just shifted the problem even though the source remains. In the long run, aquifers do not regenerate and flooding becomes more frequent. What are some outside the box ideas you have to change this trend? (Rocky of Lake Superior)
ANSWER (Provided by Kurt Heyman, Erie County, Ohio Soil and Water Conservation District): I appreciate the chance to respond to the question. These issues are on my mind constantly. First of all I can see the “flashy nutrient runoff” through tile of soluble elements but I question the sediment in tile runoff unless there are a lot of surface inlets. Conservation tillage leaves more residue on the soil to intercept raindrops but it is still tillage. No till however is the practice that we need to do more of because besides leaving the residue on the surface it also stimulates biological activity in the soil and allows the soil to absorb & hold more water. The water that runs out of the tile is water that the soil cannot hold and will never be used for crop growth. In our area the underground aquifers have never been very prolific due to the geological structure.
We have a plan to intensely tile a field (15 foot spacing versus the standard 40 foot spacing) with the outlet emptying into a reservoir to store water to be used later during dry periods. The water would be pumped back to the top of the field and forced into the tile to irrigate the field. A lot of the water would never leave the system so a lot of the soluble nutrients would stay on the farm. This process would help control the water to alleviate flooding downstream. Often the weather is dry enough for a 2-4 week period that extra water, if available, could be utilized. Another idea that instead of outleting tile directly into streams & rivers is to dump the water into some sort of wetland before it reaches the watercourse.
QUESTION For Dave White, NRCS: Carbon storage in restored agricultural wetlands seems to be a win-win for farmers and conservation even though a payment system to farmers is needed. Regardless, why hasn’t NRCS more forward at marketing this concept?
ANSWER (Provided by Dave White, Chief, Natural Resource Conservation Service): NRCS is very engaged with farmers in the area of carbon sequestration. Our activities range from assisting farmers with the adoption of conservation practices that store carbon to assessing the effects of carbon related conservation practices.
With regard to the restoration of agricultural wetlands, NRCS assists with wetland creation and restoration through various programs and technical assistance. The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is a voluntary program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. The goal is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in WRP. This program offers landowners an opportunity to establish long-term conservation and wildlife practices and protection through the establishment of permanent or 30-year conservation easements, or through restoration cost-share agreements where no easement is involved. WRP is one of the most important mechanisms for wetland restoration in the nation, with over 2.4 million acres restored since the inception of the program.
While NRCS does not have a carbon storage financial incentive, the agency does support the environmental services approach, including support of projects under the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program. NRCS administers CIG as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Grants are awarded through competition to state and local governments, federally recognized Indian tribes, non-governmental organizations and individuals. NRCS uses CIG to invest in innovative, on-the-ground conservation technologies and approaches with the goal of wide-scale adoption to address water quality and quantity, air quality, energy conservation and environmental markets, among other natural resource issues. Since 2004 NRCS has funded over $9.5 million in CIG grants regarding the carbon trading issue.
The Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) is a multi-agency effort to quantify the environmental effects of conservation practices and programs and develop the science base for managing the agricultural landscape for environmental quality. Project findings will be used to guide USDA conservation policy and program development and help farmers and ranchers make more informed conservation decisions. Assessments in CEAP are carried out at national, regional and watershed scales on cropland, grazing lands, wetlands and for wildlife. The three principal components of CEAP—the national assessments, the watershed assessment studies, and the bibliographies and literature reviews— contribute to building the science base for conservation. That process includes research, modeling, assessment, monitoring and data collection, outreach, and extension education. Focus is being given to translating CEAP science into practice.
Under CEAP there is a specific wetlands component. The goal of the wetlands component is to develop a broad collaborative foundation that facilitates the production and delivery of scientific data, results, and information. Findings will routinely inform conservation decisions affecting wetland ecosystems and the services they provide, particularly focusing on the effects and effectiveness of USDA conservation practices and Farm Bill conservation programs on ecosystem services provided by wetlands in agricultural landscapes. In addition, collaborative studies are underway in several of these regions to support development of simulation modeling, build forecasting capability and investigate remote sensing technologies. This model data (i.e., the Integrated Landscape Model, ILM) will be used to quantify changes in ecosystem services as a result of conservation practices and programs, climate change and other drivers of ecosystem change.
QUESTION: I live on the edge of Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron, next to a very large ditch that enters the bay. Every spring after every big rain, the water close to shore has a very high silt content. As near as I can tell, this is most surely due to the practice of farmers plowing up to and through the grass edge that borders the ditches. What is being done or can be done to counteract this practice?
ANSWER (Provided by Dave White, Chief, Natural Resource Conservation Service): NRCS is an agency committed to “helping people help the land”—our mission is to provide assistance to farmers and landowners to aid them with conservation. Ensuring productive lands in harmony with a healthy environment is our priority. As part of that mission, NRCS provides financial and technical assistance on a voluntary basis to landowners to reduce soil erosion and sedimentation of surface waters as described in your question. Technical assistance is the help NRCS and its partners provide to land users to address opportunities, concerns, and problems related to the use of natural resources and to help land users make sound natural resource management decisions on private, tribal, and other non-federal lands. All land owners, managers, and others who have a stake and interest in natural resource management may be eligible to receive technical assistance from NRCS. To receive technical assistance, the individual may contact their local NRCS office or the local conservation district. The working relationships that landowners and communities have with their local NRCS staff are unique. One-on-one help through flexible, voluntary programs occurs every day in local NRCS offices across the country. It is the way NRCS does business, and it works. To obtain conservation technical assistance, contact your local NRCS office. NRCS field staffs are available to work with farmers to adopt conservation systems that would reduce excess spring erosion and minimize sediment from reaching Saginaw Bay. Many of the practices that would make up a farmer’s chosen conservation system would also be eligible for financial assistance under several Farm Bill conservation programs.
QUESTION: Where in print or when can we expect to find US Army Corps of Engineers looking into simultaneous CS&SC closure; startup of a dual use Marine | AIS prevention rail car system?
ANSWER (Provided by Colonel Drummond, Commander, Chicago District of US Army Corps of Engineers): The GLMRIS team is continuing to evaluate a suite of options and technologies to reduce the risk of transfer of ANS between the two basins. The remaining options and technologies were identified in the ANS Control Technology Paper and include the hydrologic separation of the two basins. The GLMRIS Team must evaluate the impacts to waterway users of any proposed action, including navigation. USACE will document the results of their evaluation in the GLMRIS Report that will be provided to Congress in January 2014.
Questions regarding Joint Session Government Report Out Panel
QUESTION: For Susan Hedman, Region 5 Administrator: To show progress as well as ‘where’ to focus efforts, the health history and trends of the Great Lakes Basin can be directly measured against past surveys and maps such as the original land grant surveys, the classic 1980’s coastal wetland assessment (U.S. only), land use and wetland maps, etc. How do you plan to direct GLRI support to better address these critical health histories and trends?
ANSWER: EPA, other federal agencies, states, and local governments typically use these sources of information when planning and implementing Great Lakes restoration and protection activities — and will definitely continue to do so in the future.
QUESTION: This question is in regards to Susan Hedman’s talk on the dredging of PCB contaminated sediment dredging in the AOC’s along the Great Lakes. I was curious if the GLRI was also funding riparian wetland restoration on these rivers to prevent rapid re-sedimentation of the recently dredged AOC’s.
ANSWER: Cleanups of AOCs often involve habitat restoration, including riparian wetland restoration. For example, in the River Raisin AOC in Michigan, a number of habitat-related projects were undertaken, including two dam removal/dam modification projects to restore fish passage, a marsh and prairie restoration project at Sterling State Park, the Sterling State Park wetland control structure project, and the Sterling Island habitat restoration project.