Farming Practices that Improve Water Quality

Ten years ago, Conesus Lake residents became concerned with a massive increase in plant growth in the lake. Two researchers from different SUNY campuses got funding from the United States Department of Agriculture to study the problem.


Principal investigator Joseph Makarewicz, distinguished professor of environmental science and biology at the College of Brockport, and Isidro Bosch, a professor of environmental science and biology at SUNY Geneseo, began with focused research questions that have since led to significant improvements in the water quality of Conesus Lake, the most developed of all the Finger Lakes in New York state. 


First, Bosch says, they noticed that the most dense areas of plant growth -- algae and aquatic weeds -- were located where streams fed the lake. They also recognized that the streams ran through the region's surrounding farmland.
"We began to wonder if limiting the nutrients that went into the streams at the farms would reduce the overgrowth of plants in the lake," Makarewicz says.
Improving water quality in a large lake can seem an intractable problem, Bosch says. "We weren't trying to generate lake-wide changes. We wanted to improve the shoreline areas by treating one watershed at a time."
With this approach, the researchers could test small-scale changes on a single farm and measure their impact in the stream and further downstream in the lake. With positive results in hand, getting other farmers to change would be an easier sell.
Further, Makarewicz and Bosch kept farmers' interests in mind, trying methods that might save money and promote farmers' stewardship of their land. 
In addition to farmers, Makarewicz and Bosch engaged all interested parties, including lake property owners, local farm bureaus, municipal governments, and extension services.
As a result, the USDA now heralds the work as a model project. "The strength of the project was the level of involvement among the various stakeholders," Bosch says.
The scientific results of a decade's worth of research appear in a special issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

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