By Susan Mann
Farmers in the watersheds that feed into Lake Erie are unlikely to face onerous restrictions on their agricultural practices based on a new draft plan designed to curb phosphorus runoff and reduce algal blooms in the lake.
The Canada-Ontario draft action plan released in March on Ontario’s Environmental Registry for public comment outlines how Canada will meet its commitment to reach the phosphorus-loading target set as part of a 2014 agreement between Ontario, Ohio and Michigan and supported by both federal governments. The United States and Canada agreed to a 40 per cent reduction in phosphorus runoff from 2008 levels in the Lake Erie watersheds by 2025. Comments on the draft action plan are due by May 9.
In both Canada and the United States, the domestic action plans are to be finalized by February 2018.
Even though the draft action plan said Ontario would consider further restrictions on nutrient applications outside of growing seasons, southwestern Ontario vegetable farmer Mark Wales said the government is “not looking at legislating a ban on spreading (manure or fertilizer).”
Spreading nutrients in the winter is strongly discouraged in Ontario but so far there isn’t a total ban on it. Ontario restricts spreading manure on frozen soil, or soil covered with snow or ice. “I would expect some day in the future there will be,” he said. “We will move in that direction because we should.”
Before enacting laws, the province needs to ensure all farmers have sufficient manure storage. “We’re not even sure what sufficient manure storage is any more,” Wales noted. When the Nutrient Management Act was implemented 14 years ago, 240 days was deemed to be enough storage. That may no longer be the right number.
“It’s something we’ll have to deal with going forward because we’ll have to deal with it for the large producers too,” he said.
Wales participates in the Ontario phosphorus working group and sits on the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, a 28-member advisory body made up of Americans and Canadians. It advises the International Joint Commission, an independent organization created by Canada and the United States for the two countries to co-operate in preventing and resolving disputes on the use and quality of the lakes and rivers on their shared borders.
In January, the commission released a draft report assessing Great Lakes water quality and called for mandatory rules limiting phosphorus runoff from farms coming from manure and fertilizers. Its report states the water quality in Lake Erie’s western and central basins is unacceptable.
Among some of the other measures that will affect farmers in the Canada-Ontario draft plan are:
• Ontario will continue phasing in farms under the Nutrient Management Act through building permit approvals.
• Ontario plans to implement a new Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation strategy to support soil management practices that “provide economic, environmental and social benefits to Ontario.”
• By next year, the province will start reviewing its approach to rural storm water and agricultural drainage management. It will include the province examining the interactions between runoff from rural lands and roads, and outlet drainage from agricultural lands and municipal drains.
• The province will continue working with greenhouse farmers to encourage them to recycle and reduce phosphorous levels in the discharges they release to watercourses flowing into Lake Erie.
• Ontario will continue encouraging stewardship activities on private lands that support phosphorus reductions.
• The province will continue developing and implementing the Ontario-industry led 4R program, designed to ensure the right source of nutrients is applied at the right rate, time and in the right placement.
• Continue work on revisions to feed regulations to remove minimum nutrient levels for livestock feeds, including phosphorus. This will likely be in place by next year and give the feed industry flexibility to reduce phosphorus levels in feed where it makes sense.