Ohio State University Extension Service educator Jim Hoorman teaches a basic chemistry lesson on March 12, with assistance from  Denise Balbaugh, Ottawa's Certified Floodplain Administrator  (Putnam Sentinel/Anne Coburn-Griffis)
Ohio State University Extension Service educator Jim Hoorman teaches a basic chemistry lesson on March 12, with assistance from Denise Balbaugh, Ottawa's Certified Floodplain Administrator (Putnam Sentinel/Anne Coburn-Griffis)

OTTAWA — During the 2007 flooding of the Blanchard River, over 80 billion gallons of water washed through Findlay. Ohio State University Extension Service educator Jim Hoorman said at the March 12 Blanchard River Flood Mitigation Coalition meeting, this is the equivalent of four Grand Lakes St. Marys, which itself is 12,508 acres with a depth of five feet.

“If we were to store all that water in a 10-feet-deep reservoir, we would need 25,000 acres for water,” said Hoorman. “Here’s another option. Rather than storing all that water in a reservoir, farmers would put in a half inch to a one inch dam around their property. Sounds stupid doesn’t it?”

“Let me tell you a story,” Hoorman continued. “I had a farmer west of town here who had 400 acres out in cover crops. A neighbor was standing, looking at his field, then at his own, and noticing something different. Where there were cover crops, the water had drained off. Where you had a big radish, the radish pushed down and pushed the soil out, physically lifting the soil and expanding it. Where the soil had expanded, more water was stored.”

This example prefaced Hoorman’s presentation about the difference that he and other agriculture specialists, including those at the federal level, feel the use of cover crops during the planting off-season will make on flood levels. Hoorman told his audience that soils that have live plants contain more air and water. If more cover crops had been planted, there very likely would have been less water running down Findlay and Ottawa’s Main Streets during the 2013 Christmas-week flood.

Although the March 12 message emphasized reduction in flood levels, the use of cover crops will dramatically reduce the amount of dissolved phosphorus that is spurring the growth of deadly cyanobacterias, “blue-green algae,” in inland waters, including Lake Erie.

On Jan. 22, the Ohio Senate voted 32-0 in favor of Senate Bill 150. The sponsors of S.B. 150, including Senator Cliff Hite (R–Findlay), designed the legislation to address agricultural nutrient runoff into Ohio waterways and the algae problems in Grand Lake St. Marys and Lake Erie. The bill requires farm nutrient applicators and farmers who apply ag nutrients to 50 or more acres to undergo training and education to become certified by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Hoorman, an Assistant Professor for the Ohio State University, has secured grant funding to demonstrate the cover crop effect as well as to continue research on best management practices. Some of that will be related to the flooding.

The Putnam County SHARP site (Soil Health and Research Plot) will be his proving ground. The test lab is located across from the closed county landfill on CR H-11. The land, which contains poor quality soil, has not seen human use for nearly two decades and is essentially a buffer around the landfill, according to Hoorman. “We’re going to spilt up about nine acres that we can work with,” he said. “We’ll plant three acres each in corn, wheat and soybeans, rotate every year and use three different tillage systems within them. We want to study conventional tillage, no till, and no till plus a cover crop, what I’m calling ecological farming. With ecological farming, you have organic matter. You can store more water, you can store more nutrients, both nitrogen and phosphorus.”

One of the things researchers will do on the SHARP site is measure just how much water comes off each of the plots. Hoorman predicts that the tilled plot will compact, the no till will stay the same, but the no till plus cover will actually be raised in elevation by organic matter. “That’s important because every one percent of organic matter holds one to two acre inches of water per one foot of soil, depending on soil texture.”

Currently, the percentage of farmers who use cover crops is relatively low in Putnam County. Hoorman suggested that the two biggest barriers to adopting the practice are the break with tradition and the time it will take for farmers to make the transition and see cost benefits, although he stated that the USDA is working on grants to help farmers make it through the transition period.

Glen Karhoff, a landholder and farmer from Glandorf, was one of the audience members who braved Wednesdays snowstorm to hear the latest movement in flood mitigation. He believes the adoption of cover crops to retain water and improve its quality will play a major role in flood mitigation. “I live along this river, so I have a horse in this race. If this research does what we think it will do, it’s going to be 10, 20 times more effective physically than anything else we can do to the river. Farmers are no dummies. They see the benefits, they’re going to adopt cover crops.”

Other BRFMC March 12 meeting items included:

• The Village of Ottawa has closed on the purchase of two properties of the nine structures in Hazard Mitigation Grant Project #1, and HMGP #2 is in the appraisal process. Denise Balbaugh, Certified Floodplain Administrator, said that it is possible that she could hear something about HMGP #3 in April, 2014. Up to this point, using HMGP, Ottawa has purchased and demolished approximately 25 structures and removed 17 mobile homes.

• Discussion ensued regarding comments made by Troy Recker, Putnam County Engineer’s Office, in the March 5 edition of the Putnam County Sentinel about the engineering of the I-9 Bridge. Steve Wilson, project manager with the Hancock County engineer’s office, stated that since the bridge was engineerd in 1996 using the “steady state” model standard, technology has advanced, and now there is the “unsteady state” model developed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The new model shows that improvement could be made with the I-9 Bridge area to reduce flooding in Ottawa. In addition, Mr. Wilson said that the USACE plan has been engineered by URS, a nationally recognized engineering firm, and then reviewed by Corps’ district, division, and headquarters staff, followed by a peer review from a division in a different :part of the country. Countering another of Recker’s concerns that the USACE modeling may rely primarily on GIS data from satellite, Wilson responded that the cross-sections were physically gathered, not only from satellite information.

• Deb Bauer reported on a 3/11/14 telephone conference with the Army Corps of Engineers that included participants from Buffalo Division, Congressman Latta’s office, Findlay, Hancock County, Farmers Union, and Ottawa. The $1.5 million available for the Blanchard project in the Army Corps budget was discussed, and the Army Corps representatives gave 18-24 months as the timeframe for completion of the General Investigation Study, saying this was contingent on “full and continuous funding, including the local share.” Allison Witt, from Congressman Latta’s office and Hancock County Commissioner Brian Robertson questioned the schedule for completion. The Army Corps said the study will be completed 24 months from receipt of full funding, and federal funding should be received in April, 2014. The Army Corps will also release a timeline with milestones and risks for keeping the study on schedule by the end of March.