The human body can go weeks without food, but only about 3 days without water. Access to clean and safe water is something we often take for granted. It is vital for drinking, recreation, sanitation, hygiene, industry, and agriculture. It is our most precious global resource.
Life in Lenawee depends on the water cycle, which is also known as the hydrologic cycle and includes our ground and soil. The Agricultural industry requires clean, healthy water to grow our food so ensuring that we are being intentional in preserving this valuable resource is vital to the continued success of our communities.
When the first settlers came to Lenawee County they found a well-watered land due to the lakes and rivers that abound. As they began working and tilling the land, the need became evident to establish a drain system. After all, a flooded field does not produce good crops.
(photo credit: Larry & Joan Gould, whose family helped develop our early agriculture industry in Lenawee County)
Parts of our county were also covered with wetlands and marshes. The southeastern part of our county was part of the Great Black Swamp. As the demand for more tillable land grew, Lenawee County established the first county drain in the state of Michigan.
In 1847, three men (from the township of Dover, the village of Adrian, and the village of Tecumseh) were approved to establish a drain that would access four townships. The Lenawee County Drain Commission was established to maintain and expand on this new infrastructure that would expand with the population growth in the County.
The Dust Bowl
In the 1930s, a severe drought and high winds led to a weather phenomenon named The Dust Bowl. Eroding soil from poor farming and conservation practices led to massive dust storms that blew east from the Great Plains to New York City. The impact on the economy of the United States was devastating and intensified the effects of the Great Depression.
(image source: earthobservatory.nasa.gov)
In response, the federal government created the Soil Conservation Services (SCS). It was a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) entity placed in counties across the nation to focus on soil conservation.
“Local farmers did not want to be told best practices on agriculture from a national perspective. That was one of the reasons they established the local conservation districts. The local districts could lay out the local issues for the USDA staff,” explained Tom Van Wagner, Field Technician for the Lenawee County Conservation District.
Lenawee Conservation District
The Lenawee Conservation District (LCD) was established in 1946 with a mission to guide the local conservation process to protect the soil and water resources and provide education and technical assistance to ultimately create a balanced environment.
Upon its establishment, the LCD developed best practices in agriculture for soil conservation and implemented programs with the help of Lenawee County farmers. The initial focus was on learning more about the source of erosion that caused massive devastation during the Dust Bowl. Resulting conservation practices included planting tree windbreaks, refining tilling practices, and introducing cover crops.
Since then, the focus of LCD has shifted to additional soil conservation methods such as keeping nutrients in the ground and reducing the runoff in water that drains from the field.
“The conservation district here in Lenawee County is focused not just on soil but also on water. We are looking to see what landowners in the County can do not only for the betterment of their property but also the surrounding area,” stated Lindsay Garrison, District Manager of the Lenawee Conservation District.
Farms need irrigation to grow bountiful crops and they receive that irrigation in Lenawee from two primary sources: precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) and direction irrigation from their water source (wells that pull from the aquifers underground).
The aquifers recharge from precipitation that drains through the ground. Runoff from the fields goes through the ditch system that was put in place by our ancestors (and is maintained today by the Lenawee County Drain Commission). From there, the drains lead to the River Raisin on the east side of the County and Bean Creek on the west side. Bean Creek joins the Tiffin River which flows into the Maumee River at Defiance, Ohio. Both the River Raisin and the Maumee River empty into the western basin of Lake Erie.
(photo: Bean Creek Watershed)
(photo: River Raisin Watershed)
The Maumee River meets Lake Erie in Toledo and the River Raisin meets Lake Erie in Monroe. Although Lenawee County isn’t directly connected to Lake Erie, what we do here in Lenawee affects the Great Lake.
The Lake Erie Algae Bloom was first noticed in the 1960s. Algae blooms are formed by bacteria that is produced from nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, iron) and thrives in warm, shallow waters like the western Lake Erie basin. The blooms produce dangerous toxins that are poisonous to humans, fish, livestock, and pets – causing illness, organ failure, or death.
Many municipalities get their water supply from Lake Erie, including Toledo. In 2014, the city of Toledo lost access to this as a water supply due to the dangerous conditions caused by the algae bloom. Their water supply was immediately halted, leading to a water crisis. Upgrades were made to the processing plant and they developed backup plans to get water directly from the Maumee River but that has caused additional expense and processing problems.
One enterprising Ohio resident has proposed the idea of selling water to western Toledo residents from his water pipeline. The pipeline sources water from the Michindoh Aquifer, the very aquifer that Lenawee County drinking and irrigation water comes from in the western half of Lenawee County.
“One of the issues with this idea of pumping water outside the aquifer but not putting it back is that it could create an imbalance in the natural water cycle,” stated Van Wagner. “It’s all related to rainfall and recharging. The amount we take out of that aquifer as well as how long it takes to recharge. This will affect our Lenawee County residents if it happens.”
Lenawee Farmers are deeply connected to the soil and conservation. They understand the impact that their farming practices have on Lake Erie and are leading the way in making changes to improve the situation.
“Lenawee County farmers have recognized that farming practices contribute to the algae bloom in Lake Erie. We also have sewer drainage and other industry runoff, but our farmers acknowledge the part they play,” stated Garrison. “Together we are collaborating to address the issue.”
Lenawee County farmers have been diligently working to reduce their impact through new conservation practices. The positive results can be seen in the most recent aerial algae bloom maps.
“The District has worked very closely with landowners to implement conservation practices to reduce that impact and it’s visible from satellite imagery when you look at the mouth of the River Raisin versus the Maumee River,” said Garrison. “Most of our farmland drains into the River Raisin Watershed. There is a difference in the amount of sediment coming from those two tributaries.”
Lenawee continues to lead the way in applying for and receiving USDA funding, grants, and other County funding for new studies and practices in soil conservation. Some of the current grants include:
- Drainage Water Management
- Nutrient Management Practices
“We’ve recently received grant funds to do some newer and more innovative nutrient management practices with farmers,” explained Garrison. “With the new funds, we are trying some new equipment on small and large farm operations to help with placement of the nutrients and measuring the effects on both the yield and the nutrient drainage into Lake Erie.”
Garrison and Van Wagner check on some of the new equipment in place on Sunrise Farms, Inc., owned by Jim and Laurie Isley and their son Jacob.
Four Reasons This Is Important to Lenawee
How do farming practices, aquifers, algae blooms, and conservation impact Lenawee County residents on a day to day basis?
First, this has a direct impact on the water we get from the tap in our houses and businesses. Whether it’s well water or water from a local municipality – it all comes from the same source and is part of the water cycle. Water is very expensive to procure from other areas as residents in Toledo have discovered.
Second, this has a direct impact on the food we eat. Soil conservation practices have the added benefit of increasing the yield for Lenawee County farms. In the State of Michigan, Lenawee County is the leading producer of corn, the second leading producer of wheat, and a top ten producer for many other crops.
Third, since agricultural is one of Lenawee County’s largest industries, the success of our farmers directly affects the economic success of the rest of the county. Research shows that each farmer’s business is very closely tied to eight other local small businesses.
Finally, as the business economy flourishes, it pours back into our local government through tax revenue. With higher business tax revenues, the burden on the personal property owner to fund mandated government services is reduced. If these revenues were to decline, the burden on citizens taxpayers would increase.
“Agriculture is the greatest and fundamentally the most important of our industries. The cities are but the branches of the tree of national life, the roots of which go deeply into the land. We all flourish or decline with the farmer,” stated Bernard Baruch, an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Lenawee County’s rich agricultural history combined with today’s innovative conservation approaches can help our communities remain a leader in agriculture production and protect our water sources for many generations to come. To learn more about soil conservation, visit the Lenawee Conservation District.