Improving Water Quality Through Compost in Michigan

Tom Zimnicki, agriculture policy director, Michigan Environmental Council
Kerrin O'Brien, executive director, Michigan Recycling Coalition

As summer heats up, so too does the calculable media coverage, vivid images and conversation about algal blooms in western Lake Erie. With NOAA's early 2018 projections mimicking the 2017 algal bloom, this year is sure to be filled with much finger-pointing and few real solutions. Last year, I wrote an op-ed calling on the state to embrace common sense standards for agricultural producers and take concrete steps toward curbing nutrient runoff. With minimal change in messaging and action from the state, this year I am calling on state agencies, the legislature, and stakeholders in the agricultural and urban sectors to embrace a new priority: improving soil health. 

After years of depletion, soil health improvement strategies continue to gain popularity throughout the agricultural industry. The agricultural community already advocates for conservation practices like cover crops, reduced tillage and diversifying crop rotations that are shown to increase water-holding capacity and promote more efficient nutrient uptake within crops. 

Another less utilized but more traditional method for improving soil health is through the application of organic amendments to fields. 

These stable, organic amendments work to build microbial communities, improve porosity, enhance crop yields, and even achieve (natural) disease and pest suppression. While there are many variations, one of the most basic organic amendments available to farmers is compost. The application of compost helps minimize fertilizer and soil runoff into our waterways and may also help improve a farmer's yield. 

Compost offers a range of benefits to urban landscape as well. By increasing organic matter by as little as 1 percent through the addition of compost, soils may increase their water-storage capacity by over 15,000 gallons per acre. This extra storage helps prevent localized flooding and reduces nutrient-dense and potentially pollutant-laden water from flowing off urban lands into waterways. Compost has also demonstrated an ability to help bind and even degrade pollutants such as heavy metals, pesticides, and petroleum products, which could have significant implications for post-industrial cities throughout Michigan. 

The agricultural sector cannot be alone in the pursuit of healthier soils. Urban centers and their expansive right of ways, post-industrial lots, parks and urban landscapes have an equally important role in improving soil capacity to maximize nutrient uptake and retention and to improve water quality. All of these landscapes can and should play an important role in mitigating environmental risks, similar to the agricultural sector. 

Michigan is primed to become a leader in compost development and implementation. With approximately 35 percent of our municipal waste stream consisting of organic material, we could produce roughly 1.7 million tons of compost annually. Under Michigan's current solid waste management plan, we annually discard millions of dollars of valuable materials that could otherwise be reprocessed into valuable products like compost. Manufacturing compost is also a job creator, locally sustaining four times as many jobs as incineration and twice as many compared to landfilling. 

We fully support ongoing state and regional efforts throughout the agricultural community to improve soil health through various best management practices which can also be used in an urban landscape. Furthermore, the continued application of these techniques is a key component to several state initiatives and are an important tool for improving water quality. 

Widespread proliferation of composting will require investments in research and infrastructure to efficiently process and transport these materials as well as properly funded oversight from the Michigan Department(s) of Environmental Quality and Agriculture and Rural Development. Most importantly, it will require the state to recognize that sending organic materials to a landfill is unsustainable for future generations and that we are literally throwing away millions of dollars of useful materials and ultimately, cleaner water. 

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