Altered hydrology and loading of nutrients and sediments are leading to costly ecologic, economic and human health issues. Harmful Algal Blooms (Microcystis sp.) of unprecedented size and severity have occurred in the Western Basin of Lake Erie in recent years. The blooms are primarily fueled by agricultural runoff from the Maumee watershed, which is approximately 80% agricultural land. Similar coastal eutrophication problems are present in other predominantly agricultural Great Lakes watersheds, including Saginaw Bay, Green Bay, and the Bay of Quinte.
The team is evaluating the potential to target and incentivize ecologically beneficial conservation practices in Great Lakes agricultural watersheds. The overall objective is to explore methods for identifying and then implementing agricultural conservation practices that will lead to the greatest and most cost-effective reductions in ecological impacts without placing undue risks on farm productivity. To examine this strategy, watershed and lake modeling tools are used to quantify the ecological benefits of targeting or optimizing agricultural conservation practices in a given watershed, and to explore the concept of reward-for-performance transaction frameworks (e.g., reverse auctions, supplier certification programs, agricultural drain management transactions) to improve watershed and coastal ecosystem function.
The strategy informs the development of a science-based framework that consists of the information and tools necessary for managing agricultural landscapes, to move toward optimal ecosystem improvement returns, and to understand return on investments. The modeling tools developed are at the core of the framework, providing the link between ecosystem improvements in the form of reduced Harmful Algal Blooms in the Western Lake Erie Basin, and the placement, timing, and type of agricultural conservation practices implemented on land in the contributing watershed. Used properly, this framework can inform producers, agricultural agencies, agribusinesses, and governing bodies concerning the actions required to contribute to measurable aquatic ecosystem improvement goals. By extension, this framework can inform agricultural policies and promote and support transaction-based and/or certification-based programs that provide compensation or other non-monetary awards that ultimately lead to improved ecological health in the Great Lakes and its tributary watersheds.