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New plan gets tough on big agriculture to slow toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1/9/2020 By The Associated Press
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TOLEDO, Ohio — Ohio’s new strategy to combat the toxic algae plaguing Lake Erie will focus on reducing agricultural runoff by offering farmers financial incentives.

Algal blooms have been a persistent problem on the shallow and warm western end of Lake Erie, which is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes.

Gov. Mike DeWine said Ohio plans, for the first time, to take a comprehensive approach to dealing with the main sources of a process called eutrophication. It occurs when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients that cause excessive growth of algae, creating areas of oxygen depletion.

The shallow waters between Port Clinton, Ohio, and Kingsville, Ontario, attract anglers from around the world. Smallmouth bass, muskellunge, yellow perch and panfish are sometimes forced to move when high levels of algal growth lead to low levels of dissolved oxygen. The western basin contains nursery waters for the migratory walleye that travel eastward across the Pennsylvania line. Most of the ’eyes begin traveling before the blooms grow too large, but open wounds on early-season anglers, boaters and swimmers are susceptible to infection by toxins produced by the algae.

A Lake Erie algae bloom in the summer of 2019 was the fifth largest since researchers began ranking them in 2002. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the bloom covered about 700 square miles by the end of August.

The blooms have caused numerous water warnings and beach closings in recent years. In 2014, toxins from a bloom contaminated the water supply for more than 400,000 people in the Toledo area, forcing a two-day shutdown. 

Studies have shown that much of the phosphorus that fuels the algae comes from agricultural fertilizer runoff, along with sewage treatment plants and other sources. In Ohio’s newest anti-algae plan, farmers will not be forced to adopt any of the changes, but Gov. DeWine said he thinks they will buy in because of the incentives and new practices that will save them money. The Republican governor said that a new strategy is needed because the state’s attempts to reduce the phosphorus that fuels the algae has not shown any improvement since at least 2014.

“The results have not been what we wanted,” he said, mainly because the state has spent only a fraction of the money targeted for water quality on reducing farm fertilizer runoff.

Just months after taking office in 2019 year, Mr. DeWine proposed adding nearly $1 billion to water quality projects over the next decade. State lawmakers last summer approved spending $172 million during the next two years for such work.

Gov. DeWine’s broad plan didn’t specify how much money will go toward incentives for farmers or other projects. But he said all farmers need to make some adjustments in their operations. The incentives are necessary, he said, because without them it’s unlikely the farm community would be able to pay for the changes that are needed.

“We can’t expect farmers to do things that will drive them out of business,” said Mr. DeWine. “We need to help them along.”

Among the solutions are encouraging farmers to be more precise in putting fertilizer on fields, using equipment to inject manure and fertilizer, planting cover crops and adding drainage-control structures.

Many of the practices outlined by DeWine have been talked about or are already being adopted, but the difference now is that the state will put more money behind them.

Ohio also is expected to begin work in coming months on creating and restoring wetlands as part of its new strategy to deal with the toxic algae blooms, state leaders said.

Three of the sites are along the lake’s shoreline near Toledo and the others are near inland streams and rivers that drain into the lake’s western end, which is where the algae is concentrated each summer.

Those are the first of many wetland projects Ohio is planning, said Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The state has 23 sites so far where it wants to restore or create new wetlands, which slow runoff from farmers’ fields while also filtering and capturing the phosphorus that feeds the algae.

The state’s natural resources department said it thinks that adding more wetlands can make a significant contribution to the state’s pledge to make a 40% reduction in the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie by 2025, Ms. Mertz said.

The first wetlands projects will cover roughly 450 acres; some will turn existing farmland into wetlands while others will restore existing floodplains and wetlands.

Two of the sites are at the mouth of the Maumee River, which research shows is the largest source of phosphorus and nitrogen going into the lake. The river’s watershed in northwestern Ohio drains land that is almost entirely in farm production. Water from the river will be redirected through those two new wetland areas.

The state didn’t immediately release the costs of the projects, which will be funded by local, private and state money. Ohio’s share will come from the $172 million state lawmakers approved last summer for water quality improvements.

Adam Sharp, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said what’s different about the state’s plan is that the agriculture industry came together with environmental groups to create it.

“That kind of relationship in Ohio wasn’t here before,” he said. “That’s the critical part here that creates a real, long-term opportunity for success.”

Mr. DeWine said the state will monitor its progress and track how much farmland is using these new conservation practices, but he cautioned that improvements won’t happen overnight.

Gail Hesse, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes water program, said she liked that the governor’s message included the need for all farmers to participate, and an informed approach to get to the solutions.

“Hopefully this will be the right approach at the right scale,” she said.

Last month, a federal judge in Ohio denied the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s request to dismiss a landmark lawsuit filed by an environmental group pushing for mandatory regulations to prevent toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie. The suit contends EPA is failing to uphold the federal Clean Water Act by not requiring the state of Ohio to implement a site-specific regulatory program that is tougher than any Ohio has ever tried for the lake. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing EPA, had asked the judge to dismiss the case, contending the agency is not required to impose such a program on Ohio. In a 31-page ruling, the judge denied the government’s motion and said he will allow the case to proceed.

Post-Gazette’s John Hayes contributed to this story. 

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