Unlike states in the American Southwest, one of the things that Ohioans can count on is an abundant supply of fresh water. Or can we?
Toledo’s ban on the consumption… of water from Lake Erie has passed, but the plight of 400,000 people without water grabbed national headlines – even though hugeblooms of toxic blue-green algae have become the norm in western Lake Erie in recent years. And there is more to come. This year’s bloom, which will not reach its peak until September, is moving steadily east toward Cleveland.
Unless concerted and consistent action is taken, these annually occurring harmful algae blooms are likely to become more severe. Lake Erie already is the warmest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. High levels of phosphorus from agriculture, combined-sewer overflows and other sources create conditions ripe for the explosive growth of blue-green algae. The situation is further exacerbated by climate change, which has increased water temperatures and led to more violent storms that flush nutrients off of farmlands and into streams leading to the lake.
In the aftermath of Toledo’s water shortage, Ohioans need to remember that the situation can be remedied if we are willing to make the commitment.
The first and perhaps most fundamental issue to address is that Lake Erie is receiving too much phosphorus from sources upstream. Any solution must address the root cause.
There are some who will call for responding to the problem by upgrading the water-treatment facilities of the major cities along the lake shore.
The city of Toledo spent $4 million for carbon treatments last year and is likely to increase this expenditure after the recent incident. This is a prudent step but one that only addresses a symptom and not the cause of the problem. What it overlooks is that harmful algal blooms impact Ohioans in many other ways – from the enjoyment of public beaches to recreational boating and sport fishing on the lake, to name a few.
The Ohio Phosphorus Task Force in 2013 concluded that a 40 percent reduction in all phosphorus that currently ends up in western Lake Erie is required to curtail the problem. The Nature Conservancy supports this target, which would take phosphorus levels back to their 1990s levels, when Lake Erie enjoyed a well-publicized recovery after decades of being labeled a “dead lake.” Importantly, the reduction level cannot be an aspirational goal. It needs to be a hard target with consequences if efforts fall short.
And we need everyone’s involvement to fix the problem. No one can afford to sit on the sidelines.
Ohio farmers have been responsive to the issue of harmful algal blooms. In the last two years, the agribusiness community, working with The Nature Conservancy and other partners, has developed a voluntary, third-party certification program to encourage best practices for fertilizer applications.
Nutrient service providers throughout the Lake Erie watershed in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana have been signing up for this program, known as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification, at a steady pace. The program was announced in March and by the end of June, 49 service providers had applied for certification through the program. These service providers are responsible for the majority of the fertilizers applied to crops in the western basin. By the end of July, three independent, third-party auditors had been trained and four retailers had completed audits.
Sensible regulations also play a role. The Nature Conservancy advocated in support of the passage of Ohio Senate Bill 150, which requires that anyone applying fertilizer on 50 acres of farmland or more be certified by the Ohio Department of Agriculture by 2017.
Additional measure should include:
- Farming – Improve timing, placement and amount of fertilizer and manure application to keep nutrients out of the water and in the fields to grow crops.
- Drainage from farms – Slow water movement from field to streams and keep nutrient-rich surface water from flowing into drainage pipes and ditches.
- Cities – Upgrade old sewer systems as quickly as possible to keep storm water and raw sewage out of streams.
- Natural areas – Restore healthy streams, wetlands and floodplains so that they can act as kidneys of the lake by slowing waters, filtering nutrients and reducing flooding.
- The lake – Continue to explore better uses of dredged dirt and keep additional nonnative species out of the lake.
An important point is figuring out how to pay for the solution. The short answer is that everyone must do their part. There are funding streams through the federal Farm Bill and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative but they are not as targeted as they could be. Over the last two years, The Nature Conservancy has been conducting research on the effectiveness of different farm practices in reducing phosphorus runoff. Federal funds should go only to those activities proven to provide the most bang for the buck.
At the state level, we will need political leadership to ramp up funding to address the problem. A small down payment was made two years ago through a bipartisan effort to create a Healthy Lake Erie Fund. But much more will be needed. One suggestion is a temporary water fee that would be used for the installation of so-called natural infrastructure that can filter water while at the same time providing green space and habitat for wildlife.
A solution is within our reach but for it to work, every landowner, farmer and business needs to do what they can to keep nutrients on their land and out of the streams that lead ultimately to Lake Erie. Now is the time when we need all hands on deck, not pointing at one another or wondering who will act first. We are all in the same boat and if we do not work together and act now, we will be left with water everywhere and not any drop to drink.
Photo caption: Birds fly near the city of Toledo water intake crib in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles offshore from Curtice, Ohio, on Sunday, Aug. 3, a day after Toledo Mayor Michael D. Collins imposed a ban on drinking the water for about 400,000 customers. The ban, imposed after the water was tainted by toxins from algal blooms, was lifted after three days but concerns remain. (Haraz N. Ghanbari, Associated Press)
View original article at: A freshwater solution is within our reach: Josh Knights