Summer may be over, but eyes still need to be on Lake Erie. Toxic algal blooms had another bad year, covering 620 square miles of the lake at one point with a thick green scum and microcystin toxins. The situation won’t improve until the manure and fertilizer runoff pollution causing the toxic algal blooms is significantly reduced. Until then, safe clean drinking water will be impaired and at risk every summer, fisheries will be diminished, and enjoyable outdoor recreation will suffer.
The causes are clear. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the main driver is phosphorus pollution, of which about 90 percent comes from agricultural runoff — excess fertilizer from crops, and manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These CAFOs have thousands of hogs, chickens and cows producing tons of poop that is spread on fields and stored in lagoons, and then runs off into rivers that flow into Lake Erie. This agricultural runoff pollution causes toxic algal outbreaks in the summer heat.
When fewer crops are planted, as during 2019’s rainy spring, less fertilizer is applied. But the CAFOs’ increasing manure output isn’t tied to weather. That manure doesn’t somehow disappear – it sits in lagoons, or is spread on fields. Fewer crops and saturated soils absorb less phosphorus, and heavy rains dislodge phosphorus previously applied to fields.
More than $3 billion of public funds have been spent to improve water quality in the Lake Erie watershed since 2011, but the pollution problems continue. Voluntary agricultural programs, alone, aren’t solving the toxic algal outbreak problem.
Why not? Mainly because the rapid expansion of new CAFOs results in huge increases of manure runoff pollution into western Lake Erie, thereby trumping other progress. The five worst blooms have occurred since 2011, and this year’s is projected to make it six. Manure and fertilizer runoff from large agricultural operations must be significantly reduced.
Ohio signed Annex 4 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement committing the state to achieve a 40 percent reduction of phosphorus entering western Lake Erie by 2025, with a 20 percent reduction by 2020. Ohio isn’t on a path to achieving this progress, and the new H2Ohio Fund isn’t sufficient to get there. As more CAFOs produce more manure running into the Maumee, Sandusky and other watersheds, Ohio taxpayers are subsidizing pollution that contaminates western Lake Erie.
These three actions can make a difference:
- Gov. Mike DeWine should direct the Ohio Department of Agriculture to put a moratorium on new or expanding CAFOs throughout the Maumee River watershed so that bad problems don’t get worse, and progress toward the 40 percent phosphorus reduction is achieved. Annual summer toxic algal blooms impairing water quality are not an acceptable “normal” under environmental laws, or common sense. Our recent report used satellite imagery to track rapid, massive growth of CAFOs throughout the Maumee River watershed. The Ohio Department of Agriculture regulates CAFOs, but apparently doesn’t know how many are actually operating – many are unpermitted and under the radar. Existing CAFOs should be required to reduce their manure runoff pollution, and no new CAFOs should open. Respected researcher J. Ann Selzer’s poll results shows 59 percent of voters in four northwest Ohio counties support a CAFO moratorium.
- Hold large-scale CAFO owners accountable and financially responsible for their manure pollution. They should dispose their animal wastes in ways that don’t contaminate the Great Lakes and put safe, clean water supplies and fisheries at risk. They should be financially responsible for their pollution, and fix the problems they’re creating. They shouldn’t shift the costs to Ohio taxpayers.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio EPA must adopt enforceable regulatory standards to reduce phosphorus flowing into western Lake Erie. The Clean Water Act requires Total Maximum Daily Loads – mandatory caps on pollution entering Lake Erie’s impaired waters. We are suing U.S. EPA to implement those pollution caps to alleviate the toxic algal blooms that have plagued western Lake Erie. Lucas County filed a related lawsuit. The U.S. EPA and Ohio agencies must step up and stop avoiding their responsibilities to sufficiently reduce phosphorus pollution to lessen toxic algae outbreaks.
Gov. DeWine must keep Ohio’s promise and commitment to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025 with a 20 percent reduction for interim progress by 2020. He should instruct his agencies to apply enforceable regulatory standards now.
Lake Erie is one of the Great Lakes where we work, live and play. Ohioans should enjoy safe, clean Lake Erie water. Gov. DeWine and his agencies must tackle these threats to public health and the economy. Let’s ensure that Lake Erie is a truly great lake.
This column originally ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.