Great Lakes
DALE YOUNG / BRIDGE MICHIGAN

Great Lakes - Too few farmers are curbing pollution in Lake Erie. Should they be forced?

As climate change complicates Lake Erie's algae problem, scientists say farmer must do far more to reduce phosphorus runoff. But will enough farmers change their ways without a government mandate?

The greenery peeked through a fresh blanket of snow on Jay Williams’ farm.

Over the past few winters, Williams has added a variety of cover crops across his 1,350-acre operation near the Ohio border. There are peas, oats and radishes rising from soil that used to lay fallow through the cold-weather months.

The winter crops unlock nutrients in the soil, which in turn allows him to use less commercial fertilizer in the spring. And the rich, spongy humus should absorb more rain, reducing the risk of fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie.

Williams hopes this and other innovative practices on his farm will make a dent in the miles-wide harmful algae blooms that plague Lake Erie every summer, primarily from nutrients in fertilizer and manure coming from farms and feedlots in the lake’s western basin.

“There's sediment that leaves the farm, despite our best efforts,” Williams said. “But we also have shown that we can keep our phosphorus levels at or below Lake Erie target levels most years.”

His voluntary changes are the type of good-faith effort that environmental regulators hope will reverse the blooms in Lake Erie. But Williams’ operation is just one small contributor to the lake’s problems, and so far not enough farmers are pursuing his path.

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