Closing Gap Between Talk, Action with Lake
By Howard Learner
Published on July 30, 2016
Tuesday marks two years since nearly 500,000 Toledo-area residents were cut off from safe drinking water because toxic algae contaminated the public water supply.
Predictions of a mild algae bloom this year because of light rainfall, along with Toledo’s water treatment plant upgrades, suggest that there will be no water shutoffs this year. But banking the future of the people around Lake Erie on the whims of the weather is a sucker’s bet.
Last week, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency placed parts of Lake Erie on its “impaired” list under the Clean Water Act, including where Toledo draws its drinking water, as well as miles of shoreline and areas around the lake islands. The point is to identify severely polluted spots that need special attention. All of western Lake Erie should be designated impaired given the entire basin’s chronic toxic algae problem.
Still, even naming parts of Lake Erie “impaired” acknowledges the blindingly obvious fact the lake’s ability to provide safe drinking water is under threat. The primary reason is also obvious: too much fertilizer and manure run off farm fields, with too few protections to keep water clean before it gets to Lake Erie.
According to a recent study conducted by leading Midwest academic institutions, including OSU, the Maumee River is the main contributor to western Lake Erie’s toxic algae problem, with 85 percent of the river’s pollution stemming from crop fields and livestock farms.
Manure and chemical fertilizer are swept into the Maumee River during storms and snow melts.
There are sensible actions and solutions that can prevent damaging runoffs. Specific farming practices like cover crops and perennials reduce the amount of pollution flowing into the lake and are highly effective when combined with actions like not over-applying manure and fertilizer. Experts in Ohio already work with farmers to encourage their voluntary adoption, as they have done for decades. And yet today, with all of those activities happening, we are still talking about algae bloom “season” as if it’s normal for toxic water to show up every summer.
The dry spring that is buying Lake Erie time this year is an outlier and will become more so as climate change continues to alter our Great Lakes. While Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario have taken positive steps to reduce phosphorus, current actions will not achieve the 40 percent phosphorus reduction by 2025 committed to by their leaders in June, 2015.
Ohio released a draft of its plan to meet this commitment earlier this year. Unfortunately, Ohio’s plan relies too much on voluntary approaches that have been shown to be insufficient across the country, and won’t successfully reduce phosphorus levels to meet the ambitious 2025 goal. A voluntary approach alone will not curb phosphorus pollution from the agricultural industry.
That is why we are glad the state of Ohio has designated at least parts of Lake Erie as impaired — an initial step toward real protections that put safe and clean water first.
We are also calling on state lawmakers and officials to establish new policies that ensure widespread adoption of practices that are verified proper applications of fertilizer and manure and will reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into nearby rivers and lakes. We also need proactive compliance to confirm that existing rules are being followed.
When our region loses clean, safe drinking water, we put everything at risk. Don’t bank on the weather. Bank on decisions that put clean, safe drinking water first.
Mr. Learner is the executive director at Environmental Law & Policy Center. Co-author Heather Taylor-Miesle is executive director at the Ohio Environmental Council. Co-author Joel Brammeier is president and CEO of Alliance for the Great Lakes.