In the year since the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University launched its Field to Faucet program, significant strides have been made to improve Ohio water quality.

Field to Faucet was conceived by Bruce McPheron, Ohio State’s vice president for agricultural administration and dean of the college, who put $1 million in college funding toward the effort after harmful algal blooms caused dangerous microcystin levels in Lake Erie and shut down Toledo’s water supply for two days in August 2014.

The initiative includes research projects, training and education efforts, all designed to ensure safe drinking water while maintaining an economically productive agricultural sector, said Jay Martin, an ecological engineer in Ohio State’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, who was chosen to lead Field to Faucet.

While fertilizer is essential to crop production, phosphorus can run off into rivers and lakes and lead to harmful algal blooms if proper timing, placement and rates are not used. Too much nitrogen can cause dead zones in waterways and excessive nitrate levels in drinking water.

Not all water quality issues originate from agriculture, Martin said, but farmers want to do their part.

“The idea behind Field to Faucet is to marshal all the forces at Ohio State to better address the water quality problem and accelerate our research to both reduce the amount of nutrients coming off agricultural lands and municipal sources to maintain safe drinking water for cities like Toledo,” he said.

“We’re also looking to expand Field to Faucet beyond just focusing on the Great Lakes to address water quality issues in inland reservoirs throughout Ohio, which has about 23 inland water bodies that are regularly impacted by algal blooms,” Martin said.

Training is also a key part of the water initiative, he said.

Since September 2014, nearly 6,600 farmers and commercial applicators have gone through fertilizer applicator certification training offered by Ohio State University Extension in partnership with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, he said. OSU Extension is the college’s statewide outreach arm.

In all, some 23 projects are now underway or planned, all designed to focus on improving water quality. Among them are:

  • The creation of a “One-Stop Data Shop” that would show connections between water quality issues in Lake Erie and land practices.  
  • The development of field sensors that will quickly scan for multiple algal toxins in water and food. 
  • Manure treatment research that aims to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from livestock waste.
  • The development of a new app that will help farmers manage farm nutrients.
  • Use of land, air and space technologies to allow researchers to better monitor harmful algal blooms in lakes and agricultural ponds.
  • Edge of field research that will compare nutrient runoff in side-by-side fields, each under different land management systems.

Financial support for Field to Faucet has been strong from agribusiness and agricultural organizations, which have been integral partners in the college’s water quality efforts.

“The college’s initial investment led to additional support from the Ohio Department of Higher Education and other entities for water quality research in general, leveraging the $1 million into $5.65 million,” said Dean McPheron.

That funding includes CFAES’s $1 million initial commitment, $2 million from the Ohio Department of Higher Education, and $2.65 million from agricultural organizations and businesses, including the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Soybean Council, Ohio Corn Marketing and Ohio Small Grains Marketing Programs, and Beck’s Hybrids.

Field to Faucet involves researchers from multiple Ohio State colleges and other regional universities, as well as governmental partners, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Martin said.

“We will keep working with our partners in building a network to improve water quality in Ohio,” he said, “and make sure that the water in Lake Erie and other places is safe to drink, and the fish are safe to eat, and the water is safe for swimming.”