Algae blooms for the past decade or more have invaded Ohio’s lakes and rivers, turning the waterways to a thick green color, killing fish — and in some case leaving the water toxic to humans.
The state has spent billions of dollars on solutions to fix the water quality problem and put in place rules to decrease what some scientists say is the No. 1 culprit of the algae blooms — runoff from farm fields and land near waterways.
This Memorial Day weekend, algae blooms are still appearing in Ohio waterways and beaches at state lakes still have signs warning people of the high bacteria levels.
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A forthcoming bill in the Statehouse will propose more regulations to clean up Ohio’s waterways but Gov. John Kasich may not wait for the bill to get to his desk.
Instead, Kasich is considering using the powers of his office to address concerns raised by an Ohio EPA study released in April, said Jim Lynch, Kasich’s communications director. The study revealed there has been “no clear decrease” in the amount of nutrients flowing from farmlands into Lake Erie and other state waters.
“It’s been a high priority for the governor since he’s been in office,” Lynch said. “We keep looking for what more we can do and what we can do through executive action is our next step.”
Just last month, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency declared the western basin of Lake Erie “impaired,” because of algae blooms that have ravaged it for years.
Algae blooms commonly form in warmer, more shallow waters, such as the western area of Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys and Buckeye Lake. Just last year, Kiser Lake near New Carlisle was overtaken by an algae bloom. They have become a major problem in all 50 states and the toxins from some blooms can cause vomiting, fevers and a number of other symptoms in people who come in contact with them, according to the federal EPA.
The fertilizers and nutrients that help farmers grow their crops, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are causing algae to blossom in Ohio’s waters, said Stephen Jacquemin, a Wright State University Lake Campus biology professor and researcher who works in the school’s new agriculture and water quality center on Grand Lake St. Marys.
The “single biggest thing” that Ohioans can do to prevent algal blooms is to stop fertilizer runoff from getting into lakes in the first place, Kasich said during a May 15 press conference.
“A lot of times people don’t want to have rules because rules make somebody upset,” he said. “In this case, somebody is going to be upset because they’re not managing their land the right way.”
Beach testing begins
The declaration for the western portion of Lake Erie came just weeks before the Ohio Department of Natural Resources began testing waters at state beaches last week in preparation for Memorial Day weekend, said Russ Kennedy, deputy communications director for the Ohio Department of Health.
The state tests waters for bacteria every two weeks unless a high level of it is detected, in which case more frequent testing is performed until bacteria decreases, Kennedy said.
As of Thursday, the state had issued 27 alerts for Ohio beaches, according to the Ohio-run website called BeachGuard. Grand Lake St. Marys in Celina and Buckeye Lake in Fairfield County each received the most severe warning, indicating that algal toxins are at “unsafe levels” and that people should “avoid all contact with the waer.”
Deer Creek Lake, Paint Creek Lake and the Izaak Walton League on the Little Miami River in Loveland had bacteria contamination alerts posted. Kiser Lake in Clark County and Caesar Creek Lake in Harveysburg were absent from the BeachGuard alert site as of Thursday.
Since it’s early in the summer, algae problems will likely get worse for Ohio’s beaches as temperatures increase, Jacquemin said.
“People should be aware of it all the time,” Jacquemin said. “Typically it’s late summer and very early fall.”
‘A fighting chance’
Not only do the water quality issues pose a problem for beach-goers but they are threatening an bi-national Great Lakes agreement struck in 2015.
The governors of Ohio and Michigan and the premier of Ontario, Canada have all signed the Western Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement. It calls for substantial reductions in nutrients runoff into Lake Erie and its source watersheds, including a 40 percent reduction in phosphorous by 2025, according to a copy of the agreement.
Ohio has invested $6 billion statewide to improve water quality since 2011, according to the Ohio EPA. Even with that investment though, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario are nowhere near reaching that 2025 goal, said Heidi Grismer, spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA.
Although Kasich may take action on his own, the Ohio EPA is already planning to introduce a bill in the state legislature to help meet the 2025 goal, Grismer said.
“If we get to the point that we are meeting the target…that gives us a fighting chance,” Grismer said. “It’s not a guarantee but it gives us a much better chance to (prevent) harmful algal blooms.”
The most recent version of the bill would limit the amount of phosphorous being expelled from waste water treatment plants to one milligram per liter. It would also allow the state department of agriculture to declare certain watersheds as being “distressed,” Grismer said, a designation that would require farmers in that area to develop plans to reduce their use of nutrients.
‘A right and a wrong way’
The idea for nutrient reduction plans comes from a practice already in use at Grand Lake St. Marys, located just 70 minutes north of Dayton.
Farmers in the Grand Lake St. Marys area have had to develop nutrient reduction plans and abide by a ban on the use of manure in winter since 2011. The rules have already resulted in a reduction of nearly 60 percent, according to a Wright State study on the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed.
When it comes to figuring out the best way to reduce nutrients flowing into Ohio’s other watersheds, the Grand Lake St. Marys model may be the key, Jacquemin said.
“There is no silver bullet and I’m not saying everything on Grand Lake is going to work everywhere but there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it,” Jacquemin said. “One of the cleanest ways to go about it is really to start with nutrient management plans.”
The Story So Far
• Previously: In 2015, the governors of Ohio, Michigan and the premier of Ontario, Canada agreed to reduce the amount of phosphorous in Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025.
• What’s new: An April report from the Ohio EPA showed there has been “no clear decrease” since 2015 in the amount of nutrients flowing into state waters.
• What’s next: Gov. John Kasich may take executive action to reduce nutrient runoff while two bills are working their way through the state legislature to address the problem.
Management plans may be the ideal form of oversight, Jacquemin said, because they can “be tailored to meet the needs of individual producers.” Though Jacquemin doesn’t think there has been enough done to reduce nutrient runoff, he wouldn’t go so far as to say that more mandates from the government is what’s needed.
“Anytime you throw that word ‘regulation’ out there folks tend to get very,very upset very, very quickly,” he said. “There’s not a farmer in the world that would tell you that nutrient loading is good. What needs to be done is we have to work together and we have to communicate to move that needle a little bit more.”
Historically, the Kasich administration has taken a hands off approach to decreasing nutrients in Ohio’s waters by suggesting farmers take voluntary measures.
It’s an approach the Ohio Farm Bureau wants the governor to stick to, said Joe Cornely, the bureau’s communications director. Cornely and the bureau weren’t expecting recent reports that Kasich was considering taking executive action.
“When it first came out, it was a bit of a surprise because the Kasich administration has hung its hat on lessening the regulation burden on Ohioans,” Cornely said. “We wonder what might be different here and why piling on another set of regulations is needed when there are a ton of regulations already in place.”
The more rules put in place, the more confusion there is about what practices are the best to follow, Cornely said.
Instead, Cornely said the Farm Bureau has thrown its support behind a “Clean Lake 2020” bill in the state legislature, which was introduced in March by State Rep. Steve Arndt, a Port Clinton Republican, and State Sen. Randy Gardner, a Republican from Bowling Green. The two legislators represent “more Lake Erie shoreline than anyone else int he General Assembly,” according to an announcement for the bill.
The Clean Lake bill would get Ohio back on track to meet the 2025 phosphorous reduction goal but it would “bring about that positive change on the farm without heavy handed regulation,” Cornely said.
The Kasich administration continues to favor voluntary efforts over additional regulation when it comes to addressing water quality issues. With the governor soon leaving office though and less than seven years left for the 2025 goal to be reached, volunteer efforts may no longer be sufficient.
It’s become obvious, Grismer said, that those measures don’t always accomplish enough.
“We would still be implementing volunteer measures where we can but in some of the smaller watersheds we feel volunteer methods are not enough,” Grismer said. “We just don’t feel like we have time to wait.”
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