Federal government gives Crossroads millions to improve water

Dec. 31, 2017 at 8:51 p.m.
Updated Jan. 1, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Sherilyn Arnecke talks about the land conservation projects that have been completed with assistance from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, also known as EQIP. The sixth-generation rancher manages about 400 head of cattle on her 1,900-acre farm.

Sherilyn Arnecke talks about the land conservation projects that have been completed with assistance from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, also known as EQIP. The sixth-generation rancher manages about 400 head of cattle on her 1,900-acre farm.   Evan Lewis for The Victoria Advocate

MISSION VALLEY - Sherilyn Arnecke drove across her 200-acre ranch in an all-terrain vehicle, and her cattle tried to keep up.

She stopped every few minutes or so for Kevin Isom, the local representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to hop out and unlock an electric gate standing in her way.

The gates help Arnecke, 68, practice rotational grazing. By moving the cattle to different areas, she keeps them from balding the grass in one section. This enables the soil to absorb more water and prevents runoff.

Runoff can sustain harmful algal blooms downstream from her ranch, which has been in her family since 1857 and leads to the Guadalupe River.

Being a good steward of the land is important to Arnecke.

"I'm trying to make my granddaughters understand they're not making any more land," she said. "What we have on this earth is all there is going to be. I want to take good care of it and pass it on."

Since 2009, Crossroads farmers and ranchers such as Arnecke have received a total of $3.5 million through the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, otherwise known as EQIP.

The program has been criticized recently for failing to prevent harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes, where the Associated Press reports the number of people sickened and fish killed continue to rise as the climate warms.

Texas has also experienced more harmful algal blooms.

The harmful algal blooms that are most prevalent are red tide, cyanobacteria and golden algae.

There have been 11 red tide blooms since 1986. The most recent ones were in 2000, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015. They killed more than 75 million fish.

Red tide releases a toxin that affects the central nervous systems of fish.

Also, when waves break, the toxin becomes airborne and irritates the nose, throat and eyes of beachgoers.

People who eat oysters harvested from an area with red tide will get sick, which is why the State Department of Health Services prohibits harvesting in those areas, said Tony Reisinger with the Texas Sea Grant at Texas A&M University.

Reisinger said that before 1986, Texas had only three reported red tide blooms, in 1935, 1957 and 1974.

Scientists are still trying to determine what causes a red tide bloom, Reisinger said.

He said they most recently discovered that red tide always exists in the Bay of Campeche and in September, downcoast winds bring it to Texas, where it can bloom if the conditions are right.

Jay Pinckney, the director of the Baurch Institute for Marine and Coastal Science at the University of South Carolina, said one such condition is an influx of nitrogen and phosphorous, which is found in fertilizer. It sustains a red tide bloom.

Pinckney said he wasn't surprised people were critical of EQIP.

"You're not going to see changes overnight because the problems did not occur overnight. It's taken several years, decades as a matter of fact, and it's going to take a while for those water systems to cleanse themselves," he said.

Daniel Roelke, a plankton ecologist at Texas A&M University, agreed with Pinckney in part but added EQIP is probably better suited to prevent harmful algal blooms in ponds and watering holes than in lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams.

Isom with the USDA, however, said EQIP does work to reduce runoff. It does so in several ways, including building structures to prevent gully erosion and planting cover crops that use up leftover fertilizer so it doesn't wash away in the rain.

He said although the USDA doesn't have to quantify EQIP's success, it meets with farmers, ranchers and other agricultural agencies to identify where funds are needed. He said farmers and ranchers often come to him interested in participating in EQIP and that he advises them to apply early because there's a short turnaround from ranking projects to funding them.

Roelke works with cyanobacteria and golden algae in freshwater.

Cyanobacteria can be sustained by an influx of fertilizer, while the toxin golden algae release allows it all the nutrients it needs to bloom.

Golden algae instead proliferate when people use their boats in one body of water that has golden algae and transfer it to another. It can also travel on the wet wings of birds and even the wind.

Roelke described cyano- bacteria as the more insidious of the two.

It doesn't always create a scum on the surface of the water that warns people it's present, and its toxin can seep into the groundwater. Many Texans drink groundwater.

"With cyanobacteria, there are acute effects that are very alarming, but probably more insidious are the chronic effects. If you're exposed to low levels of cyano- toxin for many, many years, that leads to tumor growth in your liver," Roelke said.

Back in Mission Valley, Arnecke admired tanks that collect rainwater from the roof of her barn, another project funded by EQIP.

Her cattle empty the troughs of rainwater first, she said.

Since learning about EQIP through word of mouth a few years ago, she has been partly reimbursed by the USDA for a handful of projects.

She and a representative like Isom come up with a plan first, and she typically has two years to implement it and provide invoices as well as proof of how many hours were worked on it.

"The expense, we wouldn't be able to do stuff like this on our own," Arnecke said.

That's especially true after Hurricane Harvey downed numerous trees and gates and tore apart her hay barn.

"You gotta keep your eye on that bottom line," she said.



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