TOLEDO, Ohio – A project restoring 2,500 acres into wetlands along western Lake Erie is a small but important step toward creating a new home for wildlife and cleaning water runoff from farm fields that feeds harmful algae, conservation organizations say.
Restoring the wetlands east of Toledo is one of several projects aimed at creating marshland along Lake Erie through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
That program has spent more than $1 billion since 2010 dealing with environmental problems in the Great Lakes, from battling invasive species to removing contaminated sediments.
One of the biggest threats to Lake Erie are the toxic algae blooms that in some years stretch from Toledo to Cleveland and are blamed for creating dead zones in the lake where little can live. The blue-green water is a turnoff for tourists, too.
Phosphorus runoff from farms is widely considered a main contributor along with sewage treatment plants and septic tanks.
This week, conservation groups marked the completion of a project turning a 100-acre wheat field into a coastal marsh at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, which is about 20 miles east of Toledo.
The new marsh is just one part of the project to restore 2,500 acres of wetlands in the wildlife refuge. It will be home to hundreds of waterfowl and wildlife species as well as migratory birds.
That area of western Lake Erie is known as one of the best spots to see migrating birds every spring.
“You can pack a lot of biodiversity in a wetland,” said Josh Knights, executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio program. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for even these small parcels to have a big impact.”
The program says it has received nearly $10 million from the Great Lakes initiative for work in western Lake Erie and in northeast Ohio along the Grand and Ashtabula rivers.
There are only 20,000 to 30,000 acres in western Lake Erie of well-diverse marshland left, said Roy Kroll, a manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in Ohio.
The group is a partner in the restoration project at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
It would take well over 100,000 acres of wetlands to fix the water quality problems facing Lake Erie. “But every little bit counts,” he added.
Knights said that while wetlands certainly act as a natural filter, the biggest way to improve the water is working with farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer that ends up in Lake Erie.
Ohio’s natural resources department began a program last year called The Healthy Lake Erie Fund to encourage new conservation practices such as making better use of fertilizers. So far, it has put more than 35,000 acres of northwest Ohio farmland into the program.
The Ohio Farm Bureau and other agriculture industry groups also are encouraging farmers to voluntarily cut down on the manure and fertilizer that runs off their fields before the government has a chance to impose restrictions.