By Abhay Sharma
Ryerson geography and environmental studies professor Christopher Wellen was awarded $199,800 in funding from the government of Ontario to research the effects of farming activities on the Great Lakes’ water quality.
With its new capital, Wellen’s team will analyze the differences in farming practices throughout a large area surrounding the lakes and aggregate data that will be useful for the government and collaborators, as well as any future studies in this field.
Having launched the project last month, Wellen’s team has already started brainstorming and gathering data from local farms in the province. According to Wellen, the funding is allocated for supporting the team’s salaries, tuition and living expenses.
The project will focus on monitoring and analyzing data on how harmful nutrients are entering the Great Lakes through farming practices. Wellen explained that the nutrients involved could be fertilizers or manure that provide vitamins for plants to grow.
“Nutrients help grow plants on the land, but sometimes they wash into water, they wash into rivers, they wash into the Great Lakes,” he said. He added that when they do enter the water, it could lead to aquatic plants being overgrown.
“There’s all sorts of problems that are associated with that,” Wellen said. “Plants die with loss of oxygen, they can lead to fish kills, you also can’t really use a lake for swimming.”
Wellen used algae blooms as an example: the toxins they release could potentially be dangerous. He said they not only suffocate and kill fish in the masses, but also affect water quality for humans and wildlife. In 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio had to resort to drinking bottled water for three days due to high levels of toxins in Lake Erie.
This is a problem that occurs in the country as well. According to a Government of Canada report in 2019, “phosphorus levels were too high in the offshore waters of Lake Erie, resulting in a poor status.”
The results of Wellen’s research project will not only aid in understanding the issue at hand, but will also build awareness in farming communities across Ontario and on campus through student involvement with the research.
Laya Ahmadi, a PhD candidate in geography and environmental studies at Ryerson, is in charge of managing data and collecting farmer interviews. Ahmadi combines this work with information obtained from the Census of Agriculture to generalize the data to large parts of the province, according to Wellen.
He said data regarding the specific details about nutrient run-off still remains ambiguous; most of the studies before this one have been small-scale and limited to one or a few watersheds.
When combining all of the pieces of this project, Wellen said, “it will allow us to have a really good sense of what have been the effects, at scale, of all of the management of nutrients on different farm fields.”
Farmers are stewards of the earth
As caretakers of farmland, Wellen described the relationship between farmers and their land as intergenerational and one that requires dedication. Farmers care for their land and the quality of the water around them and because of their cultivating attitude toward it, they can be considered stewards of the land, he said.
That’s why project member Melisa Lumyes met with farmers and “went through all the aspects of their rotation,” observing what type of best management practices they were using. Wellen said these conversations were extensive and lasted from 45 minutes to two hours.
Wellen said he hopes to be able to discover exactly how these “nutrients are getting into the water and to quantify the effect of farming practices” by the 2023 deadline, in order to meet the Canadian and American governments’ goals.
Both the Canadian and U.S. governments have committed to reducing nutrient inputs into Lake Erie by 40 per cent before 2025. In February 2018, the Canadian government initiated the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie action plan to address harmful algal blooms and improve the health of the lake.