When the Great Black Swamp was drained in the late 1800s, northwest Ohio settlers discovered very fertile soils that were capable of high-yield agricultural production. Today, with an extensive system of artificial drainage in place, the region is a leader in grain and specialty crop agriculture. Ohio's western Lake Erie watersheds devote 65 to 87 percent of their land use to farming. Because of the geologic history of this area and the current land use, Lake Erie water quality suffers from large sediment and nutrient loadings from agricultural runoff.
Nationwide initiatives and funding programs to reduce nonpoint source pollution are meeting with success in Ohio. With the introduction of the Lake Erie Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) in 2000 and ongoing 319 and Conservation Reserve Programs, landowners have increased opportunities to receive incentives for implementing agricultural best management practices (BMPs) that improve or protect water quality. The Toussaint River Incentive Improvement Program is a watershed implementation project that has promoted buffer practices along nearly three-fourths of the river's main stem.
The Toussaint River, in northwest Ohio, flows directly into Lake Erie between Toledo and Port Clinton. A relatively small watershed, the Toussaint watershed covers about 90,000 acres and comprises portions of Wood, Sandusky, and Ottawa Counties. The main causes of water quality impairment are habitat alteration (stream channelization and removal of riparian vegetation), siltation, and nutrient enrichment due to the large agricultural land use in the watershed.
A grass filter strip, in combination with a riparian buffer, helps protect the water quality in this stream.
A 200-foot-wide floodplain is set aside along portions of the Toussaint River.
Providing financial incentives
The Toussaint River project offered landowners along the 36-mile main stem of the river economic assistance to implement a range of BMPs. Through a $275,000 subgrant from Ohio EPA's 319 Program, financial incentives were available to establish filter strips, set aside floodplain areas, and use conservation tillage practices along the river corridor. The landowners were required to make a 5-year commitment to maintain these conservation practices. Water quality assessments of the river were made both before practices were put into place and after they were established. The goal of the program was to reduce sediment and nutrient loadings into the Toussaint River and Lake Erie.
A 20-foot-wide filter strip maintained along a grass channel helps reduce sediment entering the Toussaint River.
Success in implementation
Landowners along the Toussaint River signed 57 contracts, more than 32.13 acres of filter strips were established, and 233.25 acres of floodplains were set aside and planted to grass. This means that a total of 142,213 linear feet of streamside land (nearly 27 miles of the 36-mile-long stream corridor) was converted to conservation buffer practices that will improve water quality. Along with these improvements, participating farmers switched to conservation tillage farming methods on 1,431.21 acres adjoining the new buffers.
Although the original grant objective was to install 100 acres of filter strips and to set aside 100 acres of floodplain, there was more landowner interest in the downstream reach of the river where there is a lower gradient and a broad, flat floodplain. The grant was modified to increase the maximum filter strip width to 200 feet in floodplain areas with alluvial soil types. It is believed that the wider filter strips in these more extensively flooded areas will further control erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and benefit water quality.
The Agricultural Runoff Action Group of the Maumee Remedial Action Plan (RAP) sponsored this 319 grant. The RAP's objective is to restore the Lower Maumee River, one of 42 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The Agricultural Runoff Action Group is a partnership of more than one dozen agencies and private organizations that have contributed some $208,000 in local and state matching funds to this project. Of particular note was the strong leadership and the cooperation between Soil and Water Conservation District staff in the three counties, as well as the donation of seed, equipment, and labor by local Pheasants Forever chapters to establish the filter strips. The Agricultural Runoff Action Group was recently awarded a second 319 grant for $300,000 to continue promoting these riparian conservation practices. The objectives of the second phase include providing incentive payments for similar buffer and tillage practices along the tributaries throughout the Toussaint River watershed.
With 22,500 miles of county ditches in Ohio and enough linear footage of drain tile in northwest Ohio to reach to the moon, there is plenty of opportunity for watershed protection groups to join the effort to establish riparian buffers, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality. Neighboring watersheds can look to the Toussaint River project for a model of conservation partnership.