The toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that poisoned the water of about 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio over the weekend has residents calling for change.
“I think this is a wake-up call for environmental health in general,” Carol Stepien, Director at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center said. “I hope closing off water for half a million people spurs some action akin to the 1972 Clean Water Act. We need to not only listen to lobbyists — we need to listen to people and their health needs.”
There’s been some movement already on the issue. On Monday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) announced that Lake Erie was being considered for Farm Bill funding that would help Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana put measures in place to cut down on the amount of phosphorus — one of the main drivers of algal blooms in Lake Erie — that enters the basin. It’s not certain yet whether the basin will be selected for funding, but Brown’s office said in a statement that the senator is “urging USDA to approve this application.”
Ohio State Rep. Dave Hall (R) is planning hearings on what should be done to prevent algal blooms like this from happening in the future. And Oregon state Rep. State Rep. Mike Sheehy (D) announced this week that he’s introducing a bill that would seek to reduce farm runoff into Lake Erie.
“I urge my colleagues to support any efforts to reduce run-off and stop the growth of toxic algal blooms from creating a cycle of public health crises along the Lake Erie shoreline,” Sheehy said in a statement. “This particular bloom isn’t expected to fully mature until September, so we must expedite our discussions of how to manage our state’s most precious natural resources and keep our citizens out of danger.”
But though this temporary water crisis could serve as a wake-up call for lawmakers, it won’t be the first time the region tries to address the algal blooms — and the low-oxygen “dead zones” they produce — that have plagued Lake Erie for decades. In the 1970s, industrial and sewage runoff resulted in such high pollution in the lake that some regions were declared “dead.” Since then, environmental regulations, including a 1988 ban on phosphorus in laundry detergent, have helped the lake recover, but over the last few years, phosphorus runoff, largely from agricultural fertilizer, have brought the lake’s problems with dead zones and algal blooms back into focus.
Earlier this year, the International Joint Commission published a report on the lake’s struggles with algal blooms. It concluded that the U.S. and Canada should implement new targets for the maximum amount of phosphorus that can enter the lake, including recommendations for phosphorus reductions for the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie and carries large amounts of phosphorus into the lake. In order to reduce the area of the lake’s dead zone by half, a 46 percent reduction in phosphorus pollution would be required, the report states, and the amount of phosphorus entering the Maumee River — largely from farms along its bank — would need to be decreased by 39 percent.
But so far, there hasn’t been much action on the report’s recommendations, a lack of action on the issue that worries Stepien.
“All the scientists and environmentalists are pretty much in agreement with what needs to be done. Unfortunately there’s been inaction,” she said.
There was some action on the issue earlier this year, when a bill that aimed to act as a first step towards cleaning up the lake was signed into law by Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The bill requires farmers who fertilize farms of 50 acres or more to become certified by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, undergoing a certification class that teaches them best practices for fertilizer application. The law will go into effect in 2017.
Adam Rissien, director of agricultural and water policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, said that though he’s glad the bill passed, he’s not happy that the bill exempts manure as a fertilizer that has to be applied by a someone who’s certified. The bill defines fertilizer as any substance that contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium or “any recognized plant nutrient element or compound,” but exempts manure, which also contains nitrogen and phosphorus. That exemption means that farmers can continue to apply manure as fertilizer without being certified, Rissien said. This practice, especially when done in winter when the ground is frozen, plays a key role in the development of algal blooms. He also said he thinks powerful Big Ag interests contributed to manure provisions being left out of the bill.
“Frankly, the agricultural lobby was able to strip that provision out of the bill,” he said. “That was an example of a strong lobby presence of the agricultural sector weakening a bill that sought to do the right thing and improve the situation.”
CAFOs, factory farms that produce huge amounts of manure, also did not make it into the bill’s final version.
Stepien also cites “politics, special interests, lobbyists, money” as reasons why more hasn’t been done to reduce phosphorus loading into Lake Erie. Tadd Nicholson, executive director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, told the Plain Dealer Tuesday that he thinks farmers will be able to “make changes when changes have to be made” on the issue.
Rissien said that voluntary measures to address pollution in Lake Erie aren’t working, and that the U.S. and Canada both need to come up with strict targets for how much phosphorus enters the lake. Regulation isn’t popular, he said, and farmers — especially the small-scale ones — will need to be assured that a limit on phosphorus loading won’t come with extra cost to them. Further study on the issue is helpful, he said, but along with study needs to come action.
“I think one the recent crisis in Toledo shows business as usual is not acceptable,” he said. “Something needs to change.”