Protecting National Treasures with Conservation
by Elise Brown, CTIC Communications Director
When I first saw Niagara Falls, I cried.
I hadn’t even reached the actual waterfall yet. All I saw were rapids at the top of the American Falls, frothing and foaming as the water raced toward the edge to plummet down 180 feet. It was wild, colliding with steadfast rocks, sound and wind rushing down the corridor, all water and rocks and sky.
I thought the natural thing to do was smile and marvel and take pictures.
Instead, tears fell and my voice choked. Taking pictures was nearly an impossible task. Nothing could ever capture the dangerous beauty of the Niagara River.
I was awestruck by the river, and kept thinking, If this is the river, then what must the actual Falls be like?
And one of the most significant parts of the day came when I had to stop and take a step back when I realized, this is why we do what we do.
I was in Buffalo, New York, for a professional conference, and at its close, I headed north to see Niagara Falls. Founded in 1885, the Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest in the country. The park’s existence and the preservation of the waterfall is thanks to an organization called Free Niagara, which worked for 15 years to protect the Falls’ natural beauty from industrialization and to allow the Falls to remain open to the public. The park was designed by the organization’s leader, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who also designed Central Park in New York City.
Entering the park, I took a winding path through some trees and a garden area. My first stop was the rapids; then, I bought my ticket to the observatory tower and the boat trip to the foot of the Falls on the Maid of the Mist.
Just like with the rapids, it was impossible to capture the majesty and power that towered over us. I could hardly believe how much water there was: over 750,000 gallons flowing through the American and Horseshoe Falls per second. We hardly could see because of the mist that surrounded us. The only pictures I could have taken with my limited view would have portrayed a flat sheet of water, a poor portrayal of the scene that awed us all.
After my visit to the Falls, I wasn’t immediately ready to leave. Instead of heading back to my car, I meandered through an area called the Great Lakes Garden, where grassy lawns and flower beds lay in the shape of each of the Great Lakes. The garden illustrated how each of the lakes were connected, and signs throughout described the attributes of each lake.
As a landlocked native of western Indiana, the only connection I could make to the Great Lakes was the acronym HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior), which helped me remember the names of the lakes. I had been to Lake Michigan on Chicago trips and seen Lake Erie on flights to the East Coast, but the Great Lakes were still a faraway concept to me. However, they became closer and their importance clearer as I walked through the Great Lakes Garden at Niagara Falls State Park.
I looked for the Lake Michigan sign first. It read,
“Lake Michigan is the second largest Great Lake and the only one entirely in the United States. Its volume is less than half that of Lake Superior….The shores of Lake Michigan have some of the largest and most beautiful sand dunes of all the Great Lakes.”
I had yet to visit those sand dunes, but I had seen some beautiful photographs. I walked on. Lake Erie, Superior, Huron all greeted me. Then Lake Ontario. The sign read,
“Lake Ontario receives the outflow from all of the other Great Lakes. The rich soils around Lake Ontario and the temperate climate provide an extended growing season for orchards and vineyards….The drainage basin that supplies this lake comes from the state of New York and the Province of Ontario.”
Lake Ontario receives water from all of the other Great Lakes. From Lake Erie, water travels north through the Niagara River. And in the end, one percent of all the water in the Great Lakes goes to Lake Ontario. That might not sound like much, but that’s one percent of a lot of water.
Hence the over 750,000 gallons of water flowing through Niagara Falls every second.
Even though the Great Lakes are...well...great in size, they still are sensitive to pollutants, such as soil and nutrient runoff from farms, discharges from industrial areas and disposal sites and city waste. Atmospheric pollutants falling as precipitation or dust also affect the lakes. This is especially prevalent with Lake Erie, the smallest of the lakes with many acres of urbanization and agriculture in its basin.
These pollutants become more concentrated over time. What goes into the lakes stays there for a while, denoted by water retention time. This measurement is based on how much water is in the lake and the average rate of water flowing out. For example, Lake Superior has a water retention time of 191 years. Lake Erie's is 2.6 years, the shortest of any of the retention times. At any rate, pollutants stick around for a while.
This is where what we do comes in.
Last year, CTIC wrapped up a project called the Great Lakes Cover Crop Initiative (GLCCI). The project provided assistance to producers in the Great Lakes basin to plant cover crops. From 2010-2013, CTIC and partners planted 36,971.5 acres of cover crops in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. These acres of cover crops reduced the amount of nutrients traveling to the Great Lakes: nitrogen by 72,951 pounds, phosphorus by 24,126 pounds and sediment by 2,888,740 pounds. Cover crops helped to keep these nutrients on the farm.
Cover crops also are a way to protect the soil and to keep nutrients where they belong instead of escaping the fields into our drinking sources. The plants, such as annual and warm season grasses, brassicas and legumes, can be grown between the seasons for cash crops such as corn and soybeans. They help keep soil in place and provide a cover (hence the name) for the soil, as well as roots that promote healthy soil structure.
Cover crops aren’t new – a recent survey conducted by CTIC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) program showed that cover crops were being planted in 1948. But the benefits are numerous and have much relevance today in protecting soil and keeping nutrients on the farm rather than letting them travel to nearby water sources, such as the Great Lakes.
And with the Great Lakes Basin serving as home to 21 million Americans (10 percent of the U.S. population) and 8.5 million Canadians (31 percent of Canada’s population), and the Great Lakes supplying around 84 percent of North America's fresh water supply and 21 percent of the world's supply, the Great Lakes are something to protect, just like Niagara Falls.
Because I don't know what life is like on the Great Lakes, I asked for a friend's insight. Gabe Holdwick, a resident of Harbor Beach, Michigan, which sits on the shores of Lake Huron, explained how the Great Lakes mean so much more than a supply of fresh water.
"The Great Lakes are so intertwined with life in Harbor Beach that we totally take it for granted. The reason the town exists is because of the lake. We have a break wall, harbor and lighthouse. People own cottages in Harbor Beach from all over the place, and there are two marinas where people can keep their boats. We have a Maritime Festival every year at the lakefront. When I was a kid in school we used to take class trips to the beach...and we would walk. You could see Lake Huron from my elementary school! ….
"Now that I am older and have been all over the place, the beauty of the Great Lakes is something for which I have not found a match. The ocean is very nice, but just not the same. Each lake has its own character and attributes. There is nothing like watching the sun set or rise over still water, or watching the waves crash in during a storm. On a warm breezy summer day without a cloud in the sky, there is simply no place better than being alone on a rock somewhere on the shoreline."
The quiet, green picture of cover crops growing in a field may seem vastly different from the roar and majesty of Niagara Falls. Fishing on the banks of a stream flowing through the woods may seem a far cry from gazing out on the Great Lakes from a favorite boulder. But rain falling on the fields of northern Indiana flows to streams, down to the Great Lakes and eventually through Niagara Falls. It’s all connected.
And because it’s all connected, we need to take care of our part of the world. Because what we do affects many other pieces, including the majestic Niagara Falls.
All photographs by Elise Brown.