May 29, 2018
Wanted: Innovative Farmers to Help Slow Algal Bloom on Lake Erie
By Richard Mertens
Flat, mosquito infested, and barely passable, the Great Black Swamp once covered 1,500 square miles of northwestern Ohio and neighboring Indiana. Drained and settled in the 19th century, the area includes the farm that Duane Stateler’s great-grandfather started back then. Today, Mr. Stateler and his son raise hogs and grow corn, soybeans, and wheat on the family’s acreage. But for the sake of Lake Erie, he’s giving a small part of it back to the swamp.
The old Black Swamp used to hold back and clean the water that flowed into Lake Erie, which forecasters started watching this month to predict how bad the summer’s harmful algal blooms will be. Stateler’s six muddy acres gone to marsh is a small part of of one farmer’s attempt to help minimize the unwanted growth that turns western Lake Erie green, a condition for which agricultural nutrients are largely to blame.
Farmers are facing mounting pressure to keep nutrients on their land and out of the lake. Toxic algae—cyanobacteria—has been getting worse since at least 2003, hurting the local economy and raising public health concerns. On March 22, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure from environmental groups, put western Lake Erie on a list of “impaired” bodies of water, a designation that could lead to stricter water quality standards and tougher regulations on agriculture.
“I think the success so far is the recognition across pretty much all the stakeholders that what’s going on now is a problem and that something needs to be done to fix it,” says Madeline Fleisher, a lawyer with the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. “The disagreement is over what needs to be done.”
A lot is being done already. Scientists are learning more about soil chemistry, farming practices, and nutrient pollution. More farmers are adopting environmentally friendly methods, often with financial help from the federal government. New laws are regulating when livestock farmers can and can’t spread manure on their fields – not on frozen ground or before heavy rain.
But so far the problem is outstripping efforts. Algal blooms keep reaching record proportions. Agricultural nutrients in the Maumee River, Lake Erie’s biggest source of pollution, are undiminished. Research suggests that most nutrient pollution is caused by big storms like the eight-inch rainfall that lashed the Stateler farm last July, and with climate change these storms are becoming more common.
An international commission representing the Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces wants to reduce phosphorous, the main nutrient behind the algal blooms, by 40 percent. Scientists say this goal is within reach – but only if a lot more farmers take part. “We need to have farmers participating at a scale that’s unprecedented,” says Don Scavia, a professor emeritus of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.
The EPA considers nutrient pollution one of the biggest threats to water quality in the United States, and it’s a growing problem worldwide. It afflicts big estuaries and marine ecosystems, but also many smaller bodies of water across the country – more than 2.5 million acres, according to one EPA estimate.
For Lake Erie the problem is both new and old. In the 1960s and ’70s, the lake was notorious for its foul-smelling water. The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the US and Canada began to change that. A crackdown on industries and upgrades to sewage treatment plants helped bring about dramatic improvement. The 1972 Clean Water Act had a similar effect across the US. But agriculture and other “non-point” pollution sources remained unregulated.