‘We’re all in this together’ - Great Lakes Water Quality Board Leads Manure Nutrient Management Collaborative

Antonette Arvai
June 14, 2022
fan spraying manure

One person’s trash can be another’s treasure. In the case of agriculture, animal manure is a valuable resource that helps crops grow. However, too much of a good thing can become problematic.

Runoff from manure applied to agricultural fields can contribute excess nutrients to the Great Lakes and make the problem of harmful algal blooms more serious. In January 2020, the International Joint Commission’s (IJC) Great Lakes Water Quality Board released a report containing policy recommendations for strengthening manure management regulations to help reduce nutrient runoff to the Great Lakes. 

The board report urges governments, agriculture and citizens to work together to gain a better understanding of the magnitude of the manure problem and take action to address it. In 2020, the board held a series of meetings with these groups to gather feedback on the board’s recommendation for stricter manure management rules.

Overall, meeting participants noted that “stricter manure management rules are important to implement, but we’re not likely to see any improved water quality outcomes if the rules aren’t practical for farmers to comply with, or if they’re economically or politically infeasible,” said board member Mark Wales, a crop farmer in Ontario and a past president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

In a report following up the meetings, the board further identified a crucial gap that exists: There is no entity that provides the opportunity for key players, from farmers to federal agencies, to convene and assess nutrient/manure management and water quality programs.

To help address that gap, the board began a project in 2021 to lead a collaborative group of 30 members including farmers; and conservation, environmental, business, academic and government partners and leaders.

The shared goal of this group, called the Manure Nutrient Management Collaborative (the collaborative), is to work toward healthy waters while supporting productive livestock operations and crop farms in the Great Lakes region.

For now, the board facilitates the group’s meetings, but the ultimate goal is to build an independent collaborative group with the capacity to work together to identify and advance collective recommendations for the management of manure that will improve and protect Great Lakes water quality.

“This is a unique project for the (Water Quality Board),” said member Sandy Bihn, co-lead of the collaborative and executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper. “We’re not just writing another report. We’re bringing together a community of people and building relationships to collectively think through this complex problem to identify and promote viable, economic solutions to help protect and improve Great Lakes water quality. We’re all in this together.”

healthy lakes word cloud manure collaborative

A word cloud representing collaborative members’ collective vision for their work. Credit: IJC Water Quality Board

When asked to reflect on what success would look like for the collaborative, Lambert VanderMade, who operates a dairy farm in Northwest Ohio with his family, said “My hope is the collaborative can help stimulate technological advances in responsible nutrient handling to strengthen the link between agriculture and conservation, ultimately resulting in clean water for all, with a vibrant agriculture providing affordable food for local communities.”

Another collaborative member, Margaret May, regional program lead for the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, said, “I’m very much in favor of continuous improvement of manure management. If we can share those findings with farmers involved, I think they will rise to the occasion and adopt the best practices. Those best practices will provide a benefit to the farmers themselves and to society at large with a cleaner lake—success!”

To help kickstart the collaborative’s work, the group will engage the services of a consultant to collect and review information on manure and nutrient inputs, policies and practices in two small watersheds of Lake Erie (the Auglaize River watershed in Ohio and the Medway Creek watershed in Ontario). These were chosen due to the prevalence of animal feeding operations and associated manure spreading practices in these areas. The collaborative will review best practices and other methods for the management and application of manure to reduce runoff.

The issue of agricultural nutrient runoff is particularly evident in the western basin of Lake Erie, which has been experiencing severe eutrophication, manifested as harmful algal blooms. The situation is made worse by increased frequency of extreme precipitation events which leads to increased runoff of nutrients from agricultural land.

While advancements have been made in the management and application of manure nutrients, continued investment in innovative technologies and management practices will be needed, particularly in the face of climate change, to help improve nutrient use and decrease nutrient loads to the lake. 

harmful algal bloom lake erie 2017

A harmful algal bloom in Western Basin of Lake Erie on September 20, 2017. Credit: Aerial Associates Photography Inc. by Zachary Haslick via NOAA on Flickr

The goal of these pilot efforts is to identify needed changes in land use practices, research, education and policy that will help protect water quality via animal manure management recommendations and can be scaled to a regional and Great Lakes basin-wide level.

The collaborative began in October 2021. The goal is to transition the group to an organization independent of the IJC by early 2023, to continue operating after the completion of the project and advance solutions and strategies for improved manure management.

Antonette Arvai

Antonette Arvai is a physical scientist and secretary of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.