Shared from the 4/12/2018 Sandusky Register eEdition

Prairie grass could play role in curbing harmful algal blooms

Picture

Provided photo/JOE LINK

Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University, stands in a farm field that has a strip of prairie grass.

SANDUSKY

Can Iowa know-how help Ohio defeat harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie?

Years of research at Iowa State University on the effects of planting strips of prairie grass next to farm fields show native grasses can filter out large amounts of phosphorus from farm runoff.

A paper published last year by Lisa Schulte Moore, an Iowa State University professor, showed strips of prairie grass planted next to soybean and corn fields can cut phosphorus losses by surface runoff by 77 percent. Use of the grasses also sharply reduced soil losses and nitrogen runoff, the paper said.

It’s time to experiment with prairie grass filter strips in Ohio and determine if they can play a role in cutting phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie, a key contributor to harmful algal bloom growth, said John Blakeman, an environmental specialist at NASA Plum Brook Station who has helped the government restore prairie grass at the facility.

Blakeman said he “fell out of his chair” when he saw the dramatic Iowa State results.

Blakeman and two University of Akron officials, Wil Hemper and Judy Shaw, spoke to the Register about their effort to publicize the possible uses of prairie grasses in cleaning up Lake Erie. Hemper is a fellow at the University of Akron Research Foundation. Shaw is a planning fellow at the same foundation.

The trio discussed prairie grass with Ohio EPA officials last week.

One problem in getting the word out is there is some confusion between ordinary grass filter strips, a well-known soil conservation measure in Ohio, and the filter strips using prairie grass.

While regular grass filter strips are useful, prairie grass strips have deep roots and lot of plant mass and are much more effective, Blakeman said.

“The strips are designed to act as a speed bump to slow water down and give it time to infiltrate the soil,” Schulte Moore said in an Iowa State University news release.

Iowa State said the prairie grass filter strips have been successfully planted next to farm fields not just in Iowa but in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin.

It’s time to run similar tests in Ohio, Blakeman said.

Erie County, from Bellevue to Huron, had the easternmost tallgrass prairie in the United States before settlement, Blakeman said.

“We have the same species of plants (as Iowa),” he said.

Blakeman and his allies are trying to find a farmer who will volunteer to plant prairie grass filter strips to test the concept here. Grant funds to help farmers offset the cost of taking part of their fields out of production also would be helpful, Blakeman said.

The trio said prairie grass also could play a role in another vexing Lake Erie problem — finding a good use for dirt dredged from Lake Erie.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges dirt from Lake Erie harbors to keep navigation going for Great Lakes commercial shipping. The habit of the Corps has been to dump the dirt back into the lake, a practice that’s frowned upon by environmentalists. Ohio state officials have vowed to end the practice.

The University of Akron has collaborated with companies that have developed collections of soil bacteria that can break down harmful materials in the dredged dirt, Hemper said.

The dirt can then be deposited on prairie grass.

“If you do that on a lawn, it will kill the plants,” Blakeman said.

But prairie grass does fine when a layer of dirt is dumped on it. The combination of prairie grass and dredged dirt can be used to create new natural habitat, Blakeman said.

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