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Concerned about water quality? Take a gander at the geese

Take a gander at this…

It is a great success story that plays out like a half-century long feel-good movie — the tale of the Canada goose in Ohio. By 1900, the Canada goose had been eliminated from the state of Ohio. In the tradition of white man’s abuse of the abundant natural resources of the land, Canada geese were wiped out from the Buckeye State. In response, the Ohio Division of Wildlife initiated a Canada goose restoration program on state-owned wetland areas in 1956. The effort had fragile beginnings, but by 1979 had proven successful with 18,000 Canada geese nesting in 49 Ohio counties. From there, Ohio’s goose population soared. By 2012, there were nearly 150,000 resident geese in the state and numbers have continued to climb. And, that does not include the migrant birds that are just passing through.

As the population has grown, the story of the goose in Ohio has gone from a feel-good movie to more of a horror picture. The ODNR began releasing information on how to handle goose “attacks” as they started to infringe on public areas. Golf course managers started running into serious challenges with the large, and often-surly bird. They became a big honking problem in parks as well.

“No little Jimmy, don’t eat that. Those are not tootsie rolls on the ground in the park by the pond.”

That, little Jimmy, is manure — unregulated, unmonitored, nutrient-rich manure — going directly from this poultry of the sky right into the state’s water supply. Some park ponds have goose manure so thick that walking is hazardous and swimming is forbidden.

As the Buckeye Lake community at the corners of Fairfield, Licking and Perry counties in east central Ohio began their own assessment of why they were seeing higher levels of toxins in the water, they were sure to include the staggering increase in goose numbers in the equation. At Buckeye Lake, geese were initially on the radar due to the readily apparent problems with significant amounts of manure in the water.

“The real measurable impact they make is the E. coli counts they leave on the shorelines and beaches. Last year when they took the count, 40% of the samples had E. coli levels higher than what we consider safe for children to swim in. In other words, if they swim in it, they could get diarrhea,” said Merv Bartholow, a director of the Buckeye Lake for Tomorrow (BLT) watershed management group. “This year, 65% to 69% of the samples were higher than what they need to be and, for all intents and purposes, the beaches are closed.”

Goose manure is clearly to blame for rising E. coli levels in the water, but that manure contains other stuff too. With regard to the harmful algal bloom problem that plagues Buckeye Lake and many other lakes around the state, the most notable ingredient in goose manure is phosphorous.

“We know that goose fecal matter has phosphorus in it and the average goose deposits 1.5 to two pounds of fecal matter per day. If you take all of the geese that we have around ponds and lakes and streams in the state of Ohio, that adds up significantly,” Bartholow said. “It has got to be making an impact on the water quality of our lakes and streams. That is a major change that has taken place. The goose population has gotten out of control in terms of the resident geese that stay here year round. The ice on the lake literally turns black around the areas where there is open water from the bubblers to protect the docks. That has to be making an impact, but the exact impact is very hard to quantify. The numbers that I come up with are pretty large. This needs more study by professionals with scientific backgrounds.”

In a goose manure sample collected by the Fairfield County SWCD, there was 2.8 pounds of phosphorous per ton and 6.4 pounds of phosphate per ton. With each goose producing roughly 1.75 pounds of manure per day, the calculation would be manure produced per day times 365 days per year times pounds of P or P2O5 per ton divided by 2000 pounds per ton.

Phosphorus  1.75 (pounds per day) X 365 (days) X 2.8 (pounds P per ton) / 2000 (pounds) = 0.89 pounds phosphorus per goose per year
Phosphate   1.75 (pounds per day) X 365 (days) X 6.4 (pounds P2O5 per ton) / 2000 (pounds) = 2.04 pounds phosphate per goose per year

After some additional Internet searching, my number is higher than some sources, but much lower than other numbers that that have been suggested with a range (depending on the numbers used) of around a pound per year on up to six pounds of phosphorus per year per goose. That’s a lot of fertilizer folks.

“The numbers are all over the place,” Bartholow said. “In addition, the interpretation of any of these numbers is just as diverse, with one group claiming the geese contribute little if any to the phosphorus and subsequent blue green algae problems, with another group claiming they are very responsible for the increase in harmful algal blooms the past 15 to 20 years.”

But, after assessing all of the information they could about the watershed, the Buckeye Lake community decided to address the goose problem as a part of a multi-pronged effort to improve water quality. After all, if every goose on Buckeye Lake is contributing two pounds of phosphate to the water every year, where there were no geese in 1956, wouldn’t that make a significant difference in the phosphorus levels in the lake?

“We are working with ODNR, EPA and Senator Portman to find solutions,” Bartholow said. “There is more work being done addling eggs (shaking them in the spring so they don’t hatch), extending hunting seasons to get more hunters involved and making the environment as inhospitable as possible for the geese. We think they are a real part of the problem. But, it is so easy to place the blame on the extra nutrients on the farmers in the state.”

Ultimately, though, in the much bigger picture of water quality in Lake Erie and other lakes and streams around the country, we should all realize that goose manure numbers do not really matter. The numbers that matter are funding dollars and geese are left out of that politically charged Duck-duck-goose game.

Think about it. If you are going to donate funding to improve water quality, are you going to support efforts to kill geese or fund farmers to plant cover crops? Some dead geese (the former stars of that feel-good movie) are not going to help much in an election, but acres of environmentally friendly cover crops or a new wastewater treatment plant that saved the water for a city just might. So, we likely can expect more of the same in the future in terms of water quality funding that favors addressing agriculture and municipal wastewater — easy targets with easy funding mechanisms with easily demonstrable signs of progress to show donors and voters. Unfortunately, solving the complex challenge of water quality problems is not that easy.

Undoubtedly, farmers will get paid to plant cover crops and some filter strips and do other practices to trap some of the phosphorus that they are not really losing all that much of in the first place. The geese will love the fields of winter cover crops and the filter strips where they can graze all winter and then make phosphorus deposits on the ice in the nearby creek.

The creek will carry the phosphorus to the lake that is already filled with 100 years worth of phosphorus for growing algae. The water quality problems will continue and more blame and funding will be directed at farmers to plant more cover crops to feed the geese. When we keep throwing money and regulations at the most significant sources of nutrient loading that have already improved the most, we will never likely see a real “solution” to this complex problem, just happy cover crop seed salesmen.

In this case, what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander — unless, of course, you’re a Canada goose.

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