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Opinion | We can’t fix Lake Erie until we force farmers to stop polluting

This week at Adrian College in Lenawee County, the new head of Michigan’s agriculture and rural development agency took the stage for a keynote speech on Lake Erie pollution, which – very long story short – isn’t getting better.

Black and white woman headshot.
Carrie La Seur is the new legal director at For Love of Water (FLOW), a Traverse City-based nonprofit devoted to protecting the Great Lakes.

Director Tim Boring brags that Michigan spends $50 million a year on nutrient reduction, watershed management and farmland conservation projects in an attempt to improve water quality, but the 2022 algae bloom was worse than the 2008 baseline. 

These are not numbers that should make anyone feel good – except those on the receiving end of $50 million a year. It’s an admission that throwing money at this problem is never going to work.

“Phosphorus going to Lake Erie is kind of a thing,” Director Boring acknowledges. “We’re still applying fertilizers at rates in excess of fertilizer recommendations,” and “putting too much manure in too few places.” After decades of costly efforts to persuade the ag sector, ever so gently, to keep manure out of public waterways, Director Boring’s big shift in direction is this: “We’re going to have to provide substantial economic incentives to farmers to do things in different ways.” 

Wait a minute. If paying farmers to improve water quality works and Michigan has spent over half a billion dollars on it since 2010, what went wrong? 

The answer isn’t exactly a state secret. As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told FLOW in 2020, “Agricultural commodity groups have been unwilling to work with my Administration to ensure that the state’s largest animal farms responsibly manage their manure, prevent winter runoff, and make sure pollutants are not overapplied on agricultural fields.” The result, after huge dumps of taxpayer money into the ag sector, is an unabated river of manure flowing into the Great Lakes.

Shelby Burlew, a program “verifier,” described the totally voluntary Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) (a bargain at $3M a year), which entices farmers into implementing water protection measures like buffer strips. You might wonder how Burlew verifies that this $3M expense results in water quality improvement. The short answer is, she doesn’t. That’s not her job. “Success and progress looks like farmer participation,” says Burlew. It’s getting farms from “yes I’m interested to all the way verified in the program.” There are exactly zero quantifiable metrics related to water quality, only gold-plated participation trophies.

If you want to know if the farmer next to you is taking any measures to keep field applied manure out of your local river and she doesn’t want to tell you, your only recourse is to go pound sand, pray, and of course, keep paying your taxes. Those fancy artificial wetlands don’t build themselves, and they only work until they’re choked with phosphorus.

It works like this. Farmers apply more manure and other fertilizer than the soil can absorb, to make absolutely sure that they’re getting the last fraction of a bushel possible in yields. Also because there’s a lot of manure to get rid of. A mountain of data tells us so. The fields are comprehensively plumbed with “drainage tiles,” a perforated pipe that carries away water to turn wetlands into farmland. New remote sensing research shows that 89 percent of pollutants flowing out of tile lines are carried by rain. 

It makes sense that spreading manure above drains would fill those drains with manure every time it rains, and that manure would run downhill toward bigger water. A child would understand. Yet we continue to talk about the need to educate farmers, as if they’re children. As if they can’t be held accountable.

Cities have to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards and dispose of sewage sludge under strict regulation. Phosphorus removal by cities has achieved over half of Michigan’s responsibility for Lake Erie phosphorus reductions by 2025. According to Majid Khan, Great Lakes Water Authority Director of Wastewater Operations, phosphorus from upstream non-point sources is more than twice what greater Detroit receives in its sewage. End-of-pipe sources are 5-10 percent of phosphorus loading. The other 90 percent is flowing out of fields.

A transfer of wealth is happening. The median household income in Detroit, which gets hit with rate increases to process that river of manure, is $34,000. Net farm income on a Michigan dairy farm was $234,000 in 2019 – and that doesn’t touch the profitability of meat processors and the corporate end of the industry. 

Director Boring says all we need are a few tweaks here and there, but no real change to the model of shoveling money into farm country with no accountability. It turns out that farmers aren’t the ones being treated like naive children. It’s the rest of us chumps.

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