Researcher: Tax Phosphorous To Reduce Algae Threat In Lake Erie

When a toxic algae bloom forced Toledo to shutdown its water supply for several days, state and local officials vowed a quick response. A state task force recommends cutting phosphorous run-off from fields and lawns by 40 percent. Among possible options, a new tax.

Phosphorous and nitrogen are key ingredients for growing corn and other crops. Most of the land that drains into western Lake Erie at Toledo is farmland. And fertilizer and manure run-off from those fields has been identified as a major source of toxic algae blooms, the kind of blooms that forced Toledo to cut-off its water supply to 500-thousand customers.

As state and federal government look for ways to reduce the algae threat, Ohio State University professor Brent Sohngen says he has helpful research. He suggests a tax on phosphorous.

“If we actually want to reduce phosphorous going into the lake then the best instrument we could use at this point with the knowledge we have would be a phosphorous tax,” says Sohgen

Sohngen says a 25% percent tax on phosphorous could reduce concentrations by about eight percent in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers that flow into Lake Erie.

“We’ve been able to find a link between phosphorous prices and the output of phosphorous in those two watersheds,” says Sohngen. “So, basically what we found is that anytime prices go up by one percent the output goes down by about point-three percent.”

So, Sohngen calculates it would take a 135% percent tax on phosphorous to achieve the recommended 40% reduction in phosphorous flowing into western Lake Erie.

“Basically, this very large, 135% tax would essentially cost farmers about six dollars per acre per year on all acres of land in the Maumee and Sandusky river basins,” says Sohngen.

At the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, policy analyst Larry Antosch says he’s aware of Sohngen’s phosphorous tax proposal.

“It’s an issue we’re still evaluating,” says Antosch.

Antosch says the bureau will examine the net cost of a proposed phosphorous tax before taking any position on the tax.

“If you’re going to have an increase in input costs and then you’re having a lower amount of crop or lesser amount of crop being produced. You’re being hit on both ends not only on the input but also on what you’re producing,” adds Antosch.

But, Sohngen counters that with a phosphorous tax, as opposed to a mandatory regulation, farmers would have a choice whether to use as much of the chemical on fields.

“I wouldn’t anticipate the farmers would actually be receptive to the idea at all. What we need to think about is that society is concerned about these problems. And, farmers want to continue to maintain that license to operate then figuring out a way to reduce phosphorous is a critical thing and this is one way to do that,” Sohngen says.

Sohngen researched decades of weather and crop data from Northwest Ohio. He says there’s a correlation that indicates the higher the price of phosphorous, the less of the chemical that’s applied to the land.


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