Lake Erie’s Western Basin ‘Impaired,’ Ending Years of Resistance by Kasich Administration
By James F. McCarty
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Environmentalists across the Great Lakes states hailed the announcement Thursday that, after years of resistance, the Kasich administration relented and designated the waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie impaired.
Toxic algal blooms have plagued the shallow, warmer end of the lake for more than a decade, fed by agricultural runoff from farms in the Maumee River watershed near Toledo.
Although details of the ruling have not yet been worked out, environmental groups predict it will result in stricter regulations for agriculture and others that release nutrients into the lake’s western tributaries.
Supporters of the impairment designation have argued it is necessary to save Lake Erie from toxic algae by opening more opportunities for funding and better coordination of restoration efforts.
Ohio’s change of heart came after the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center sued the U.S. EPA in federal court, and the EPA subsequently withdrew its approval of the state’s decision to keep Lake Erie off a list of impaired bodies of water.
Ohio had been the last holdout, declining to join Michigan and Ontario in declaring the lake impaired. OEPA Director Craig Butler had argued that the impaired waters designation was “immaterial.” Until now, only the Western Basin’s shoreline and drinking water intakes were designated impaired.
Historically, Ohio had sided with agriculture, supporting voluntary incentives from farmers on reducing fertilizers and other nutrients that flow off fields and into waterways. Eventually, the phosphorus and nitrates reach the lake and feed the pervasive and harmful algae blooms.
The new assessment came about based on research findings by Ohio State University’s Sea Grant College Program, Bowling Green State University, University of Toledo, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. EPA.
“For 2018, the Ohio EPA is proposing to designate the open waters of Lake Erie’s Western Basin as impaired for recreation due to harmful algae and drinking water due to occurrences of microcystin bacteria, Butler said in a prepared release.
Butler said the state has invested more than $3 billion to improve Lake Erie’s water quality, but warned that the impaired designation should not be considered a “magic bullet” to improve the lake.
Environmentalists agreed but called the designation a promising first step.
“The necessary next step for Lake Erie is strong, enforceable standards to reduce the pollution that causes toxic blue-green algae, threatening safe drinking water and crippling tourism,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
In 2014, bacteria from an algal bloom entered Toledo’s drinking water system and forced it to be shut down for two days.
Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, and co-chair of the House Great Lakes Task Force, welcomed Thursday’s decision as “long overdue.”
“As I have said many times, anyone can look out at the now annual progression of green slime and tell you that the water is ‘impaired,’ ” Kaptur said in a prepared statement.