Program aims to protect Nith River, Lake Erie from pollutants

·6 min read

WATERLOO REGION — Anne Loeffler doesn’t expect Upper Nith River farmers to lie awake at night worrying about Lake Erie, but she is concerned about what they might lose sleep over — the state of their soil.

Loeffler is a conservation specialist with the Grand River Conservation Authority. She works with farmers to help them try new methods or techniques that promote the health of the entire Grand River watershed. This means helping them keep soil and nutrients in their fields and out of the water.

“Soil and nutrients are a resource to the farmer for as long as they’re on the farm field. As soon as they hit the watercourse, they become a pollutant because there’s people downstream who drink the water and even further downstream is Lake Erie, and Lake Erie has a phosphorus issue,” says Loeffler.

For more than 20 years, the Grand River Conservation Authority has been working with farmers in the Grand River watershed on behalf of funding municipalities to help them with soil and nutrient conservation techniques.

This improves local water quality and reduces the amount of phosphorus making its way to Lake Erie. Increased phosphorus levels in the lake have led to yearly, sometimes toxic, algal blooms that can impact the drinking water of thousands who live nearby and severely damage the lake’s ecology.

This spring the conservation authority will be using funding received from the federal government to expand the program and work with farmers in the Upper Nith River subwatershed — meaning roughly anything upstream from New Hamburg. This is one part of the Grand River watershed that has not had the same level of municipal funding, says Loeffler.

Possible projects will include activities like soil testing to help farmers fine-tune their fertilizing program by illustrating which parts of their fields need which kind of nutrients and how much. Other projects could include putting up fencing along streams, creating storage facilities for manure, planting trees or planting winter cover crops to keep soil in the fields during the winter among others.

“It’s all voluntary,” says Loeffler. “We’re not telling anyone that they have to do anything, but we are saying if you would like to try some new practices, then you’re encouraged to apply for some funding to support that.”

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Brad Cober runs a cow and calf operation near Bamberg where he also works about 400 acres of crops, hay and pasture.

He’s lived on the same farm his whole life. He says he and his wife bought it from his parents in 2003.

He began working with the Grand River Conservation Authority’s rural water quality program in 2001 by building a manure storage facility, which is basically a cement pad surrounded by cement walls.

Since then, he says he also upgraded his well and started planting cover crops and practicing no-till planting.

Older wells pose a threat to groundwater and human health because they can allow possibly contaminated surface water to reach the groundwater, especially during the spring melt. Upgrading the wells seals them off from surface water.

“For our drinking water, in the spring every year, we used to have to be a little worried about it,” says Cober. “We don’t have to worry about that anymore,” he says.

He also began cover cropping about nine years ago.

“We had a bad drought,” he says. “And the reason I started was because I was short of feed. So when winter wheat came off the field, we planted oats and peas and used that as a forage.”

Even with the cattle grazing the crop, the roots still add organic matter and take up some of the nutrients to keep them in the field.

Since then he’s continued to plant cover crops, and Cober says he can see that erosion has been reduced, and weeds suppressed with his cover crops and no till planting.

Although changing the soil enough to see results in a soil test can take decades, Cober says he and his wife can see “the physical and more noticeable things.”

“The ground has changed with keeping a living root in the soil. Maybe technically on paper we can’t measure that we’re increasing that organic matter- but the soil tilth (how suitable soil is for growing crops) and the soil in your hand and the soil that we work has changed,” says Cober. “It’s softer; works up better.”

At the same time, Cober is noticing the water quality on his own farm is increasing.

“We have a drainage ditch here,” he says. “When I was a kid, like 40 years ago, there would be minnows and crayfish and things like that in the water.” But over the years with changes in farming practices, he says the water “wasn’t really that fresh anymore.”

However, in the last 10 or 15 years, Cober says the crayfish and minnows are back, and with them the muskrats and frogs and everything else, he says.

“There was a pretty big stretch 30 years ago where things like that had kind of disappeared.”

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The Grand River Conservation Authority estimates about 100,000 kilograms of phosphorus are kept out of the waterways each year because of the 6,000 voluntary rural water quality projects performed in the watershed since 1998.

The conservation authority reports the program has also resulted in 170 kilometres of fencing along stream banks to keep livestock out and stabilize the banks, and an estimated 1,000 hectares of floodplain, riparian area, steep slopes and sensitive groundwater areas planted with trees.

Loeffler says other farmers in the program notice a difference in the water.

In the Conestogo subwatershed for example, “the farmers are saying the creeks have really cleared up and they’re finding much bigger fish than they used to. They used to just get small fish and now the fish populations are doing so much better, so that’s a wonderful biological indicator that we’re going in the right direction,” says Loeffler. “Those fencing and tree planting projects are the ones that are really, really noticeable as you drive by.”

Interested farmers can contact the Grand River Conservation Authority at ruralwater@grandriver.ca or call 519-621-2761 and ask to speak to a conservation specialist.

Applications will be kept anonymous when reviewed by a committee. The committee will decide which of the projects are the highest priority for protecting water quality.

“We only have one shot, right?” says Cober. “They don’t make new land, and farms are pretty expensive, right? A farm around here is tens of thousands of dollars an acre. So that makes your soil pretty expensive. You’ve got to do whatever you can do to keep your soil on your farm and on your land and do whatever you can to take care of it.”

Meanwhile, the benefits to the people in Brantford who drink from the river downstream, and to Lake Erie, are just going to happen on their own, says Loeffler. “It’s a beautiful system.”

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record