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From field to stream

Conservation authorities are working more closely with agriculture on watershed management. Have they found a model that will work?

It’s no secret that agriculture is focused more than ever on the management of soil fertility as well as on balancing inputs with crop demand, which means keeping nutrients where they belong. Phosphorus usage in particular has become a favourite topic of discussion, both on conference agendas and around the tailgates of pickups on the farm.

To manage phosphorus and other fertilizers and inputs, the agri-food sector has launched multiple research and support programs in the past few years. Among the more successful have been the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI) and one of its funding opportunities, the Priority Subwatershed Project (PSP).

Delivered through the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) and directed by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), funds have been shared among five conservation authorities in southern Ontario to study soil health and water quality.

Two of the watersheds identified under the PSP are the Upper Medway Creek watershed, managed by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA), and the Gully Creek watershed, managed by the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority (ABCA). A third region, the Garvey-Glenn watershed, part of the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA), was also involved in the study in concert with the Gully Creek project. The final date for filing claims is December 15, 2017, although the process of gathering and collating data on the part of the agencies involved will continue until March 2018.

A collaborative approach

Michael Funk, agricultural soil and water quality technician with the UTRCA, says the Upper Medway Creek watershed was chosen both because of ongoing research in the area and also because the watershed has been identified as a phosphorus contributor to the Thames River.

The Upper Medway Creek watershed includes rolling topography in areas with some flatter regions, and variable soils that can lean towards heavier clays in many parts.

“Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) had a research project on controlled tile drainage in the head-waters of the Medway Creek,” says Funk, noting there was already a relationship with landowners there. “If we’re going to be setting up monitoring stations, why not tie it into what they’re already doing where they already have some equipment set up?”

More than 1,000 water samples were collected for the Medway Creek watershed project, like this from a tiled field.
photo: Courtesy of Michael Funk, UTRCA

Funk has been working with a number of farmers who have participated in other studies, including AAFC’s research. In the new study, they’re working with growers who are using Best Management Practices (BMPs) to either reduce erosion potential, add cover crops to their crop plans, lengthen their rotations or reduce tillage.

They’re all practices that agriculture has been promoting for the past three to five years, only now the effects are being monitored and the results used to create models to improve soil health.

With phosphorus contribution, the UTRCA has a sampling program for subwatersheds that are draining into the Thames, and from there, they created report cards that provide a summary of the watershed’s health. That’s where the Upper Medway Creek watershed was identified as a phosphorus contributor. The levels are not exceedingly high and Funk wants that clearly understood. Still, the numbers for phosphorus ranked it as one of the high contributors in the Thames River.

Funk also emphasizes that the point of this project has never been to tell farmers how to farm. The only real incentive is that funding has been available, even though it’s about to run out.

“The way this program is set up, the ministry wants to know if this type of cost-share incentive program for stewardship is a good way to reduce phosphorus,” says Funk. “That’s been a big part of conservation work in promoting these practices and cost-share-incentive programs. But we want to know on a larger scale, and all the way up to Lake Erie scale, whether we actually make a difference in phosphorus loading into the creeks, or are we just putting good projects on the ground but not making a difference in the total nutrient runoff?”

One of the more meaningful outcomes he cites is the collaborative approach that has been a centrepiece of the entire program. It’s administered by OMAFRA, delivered through OSCIA in co-operation with the conservation authorities, and with the farmers who are participating. There’s even a federal government tie-in, in this particular project.

Agriculture, as an industry, wants to see this type of work succeed, Funk believes, and anyone he’s dealt with at a farm level has expressed their appreciation for the scope of the program.

“It’s allowed farmers to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, and hopefully, we’re seeing that that’s also reducing phosphorus in the creek,” says Funk. “That’d be a win-win, and that’s always the easiest type of program to promote and sustain.”

From the perspective of the conservation authorities, they’ve set up an elaborate monitoring network and established relationships with landowners during the past couple of years. For Funk, that’s invaluable and that’s where the hard work is done — in setting up.

“From our perspective, it would be very valuable to continue, but it’s out of our control whether that monitoring continues or not,” he says, adding that the focus is always on collecting long-term data.

The project has put $300,000 per year (for a total of $900,000 over three years) into BMPs alone. To date, they’ve had 15 landowners receive funding, equating to 31 projects implemented and on the ground. In addition, they’ve collected more than 1,000 water samples from the watershed. That’s a substantial data set, yet it’s still unclear how far into the future this will carry.

“We’ve always had these stewardship programs around, but now we need to put a number on it and we need to know if it’s working,” says Funk. “That’s where that water quality sampling comes in, to know if it’s working. We’re getting great background data, but we can’t see change long-term yet. Hopefully this kind of thing continues so we can see those trends through the years.”

Lake effect

At the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority, similar sampling and water monitoring work carries a little more immediacy, given that the Gully Creek and Garvey-Glenn watersheds drain directly into Lake Huron.

Mari Veliz, the healthy watersheds supervisor with the authority, notes that her work involves monitoring water quality in an arc roughly 50 km from Grand Bend. But Veliz adds that its water quality concerns pertain to erosion issues that affect agricultural land as well as urban and urbanizing areas.

“For this particular project, we’re looking at the effectiveness and promoting phosphorus control solutions on the landscape,” Veliz says. “Those relate to improving soil health, including increasing cover on the landscape, reducing tillage where possible, improving crop rotations and those kinds of activities, and how effective they are at reducing phosphorus. That’s a key goal for the project.”

Like Funk, Veliz has been impressed with the collaborative spirit among the participants, both from an administrative perspective as well as from farmers taking part in the project. She points to the amount of data being collected from water samples, and the time required for analysis to determine the success of various management practices in reducing phosphorus.

“It’s an iterative process where the research gets done and it’s best if it involves all stakeholders in a community so that everybody can learn,” says Veliz. “Then we make decisions based on what that information tells us and continuously evaluate how we’re doing in response to the broader goals of phosphorus management. It’s a longer-term program that we hope will continue to move forward with all of our stakeholders in addressing soil and water conservation issues.”

Veliz emphasizes her belief that farmers don’t want to see the loss of their soil or have phosphorus or other inputs washed off their land. The kind of evaluation being completed through GLASI is critical to determine what they’ve been doing and the degree to which it’s been effective.

“In light of ongoing issues, that is a constant process, as I see it,” says Veliz. “This is the approach that we undertake as a community, and every now and again, we undertake the opportunities to evaluate those programs and projects, and that provides us with the insight on how to develop and deliver future programs.”

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