Stopping ag runoff key to fixing Lake Erie problem

Stopping algae blooms will mean standing up to Big Ag, experts say.

Key questions

What happened? Chemists at a Toledo water plant found microcystin toxins above safe thresholds set by the World Health Organization in treated drinking water. The toxins are produced by a large growth of bacteria that creates harmful algal blooms. The city issued a do-not-drink order from 2 am Aug. 2 to 9:30 am Aug. 4, which impacted 500,000 people in Ohio and Michigan.

What is a harmful algal bloom? Blue-green algae are found in Lake Erie between spring and fall. Heavy rain storms cause run off of agricultural fertilizer and manure and sometimes sewage overflows into streams and rivers that drain into Lake Erie. The excess nutrients in the water along with warmer temperatures cause cyanobacteria to bloom.

Is it dangerous? Yes, it can be. Toxins produced by the bacteria can affect the liver, nervous system and skin. Microcystin is more toxic than cyanide.

Is Lake Erie the only place impacted by harmful algal blooms? No. Grand Lake St. Marys, Buckeye Lake and other inland lakes have had them.

Sources: Toledo Blade, Ohio EPA, Ohio State University Stone Laboratory; Dayton Daily News research.

Key facts

Lake Erie is the shallowest, warmest and most heavily used of the five Great Lakes.

The Maumee River, a major source of phosphorus in Lake Erie, is the largest tributary in the Great Lakes.

Five states and two countries — the United States and Canada — share the lake

The deepest point is 210 feet; By contrast, the deepest point in Lake Superior is 1,332 feet.

Source: Ohio State University Stone Laboratory

By the numbers

11 million: Number of people in U.S. and Canada who drink treated water from Lake Erie every day.

4.5 million: Number of acres of agriculture land that drains into the watershed leading to the lake’s western basin where the algae blooms are most pronounced.

$100 billion: Size of the agriculture industry in Ohio.

40: Percentage reduction in nutrient loads needed to fix the algae bloom problem at Lake Erie.

$1.25 million: Grants available to farmers for planting cover crops or installing drainage devices to curb run off.

Two views

“They (farmers) need to stop the nutrient loading. Plain and simple, they need to stop the nutrient loading. The farmers say ‘Oh, it’s not us, not us.’ The treatment plants say ‘It’s not us, not us.’ But the nutrients are coming from somewhere.”

Doug Wagner, superintendent of the Oregon Water Treatment Plant, which draws water from Maumee Bay.

“We recognize this is a complex issue and there are a number of sources to the issue —not just agriculture. But we are certainly committed to dealing with our part of the issue.”

Adam Sharp, Ohio Farm Bureau vice president for public policy.

Toledo’s water crisis made headlines around the globe after 500,000 people in Ohio and Michigan were told not to drink — or even touch — their tap water for four days.

But the short-term fix that eased the public health crisis — treating the water with powdered activated carbon — was the easy part. Stopping the poisons that come into Lake Erie will require the type of hard choices and political boldness that have been mostly lacking for more than a decade.

“Ohioans should be outraged. We are losing Lake Erie again. It is the greatest resource northern Ohio has and we’re losing it again. It is sickening. People need to demand action,” said state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon. He added: “Agriculture better step up big time or government will have to tell them how to do it and that would be sad.”

Two-thirds of the phosphorous in Lake Erie — nutrient that leads to the algae blooms plaguing the lake — comes from agricultural sources, said Jeff Reutter, the long-time director of Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, a biological research station at Lake Erie. A 40 percent reduction in nutrient loads would fix the problem, he said.

Getting to that 40 percent is where the political boldness comes in. Big Ag is a $100 billion industry in Ohio.

Farmers could do their part by stepping up soil testing, not applying fertilizer or manure before it rains, inserting the fertilizer into the soil, and not putting it on fields that don’t need it, Reutter said. He acknowledged this would be more costly and time-consuming for farmers, but closing water plants and increasing testing and treatment methods is expensive too.

Public health is at stake as well. Some 11 million people in the U.S. and Canada drink treated water from Lake Erie every day.

Although the crisis burst into public view this month, the blue-green algae blooms have been appearing every year since 1998 and have been big enough to be seen by satellite since 2002.

The harmful algae bloom of 2014 isn’t even the biggest one yet, but it made its way to Toledo’s water intake in the western basin. It produced enough microcystin to exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended threshold of 1 part per billion for drinking water.

Microcystin is more toxic than cyanide and just one drop in an Olympic size swimming pool will bring the level to 1 ppb, Reutter said.

Thanks to that tiny, potent toxin, and the images of green water and outraged citizens, public officials and political leaders are grasping for solutions.

“Safe drinking water is perhaps the most fundamental of human necessities. Once you impact that, then you’ve got the attention of almost everyone,” said state Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, a member of the Lake Erie legislative caucus. “For many reasons, there are few issues facing Ohio now that are as important as this one. And perhaps there are very few issues that are as challenging as this one.”

Precious resource

The Kasich administration announced Thursday it is offering $150 million in zero-interest loans for local water plants; $1.25 million in grants for farmers to plant cover crops or install drainage devices to curb run off; and $2 million for Ohio universities to conduct further research on algal blooms.

“Lake Erie is one of Ohio’s most precious resources and each day millions turn to it for drinking as well as their livelihoods,” Gov. John Kasich said in a prepared statement. “Ohio has been increasingly aggressive in protecting it and we’re building on those efforts with new resources for those on the front lines of this battle. There’s more work to be done and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

The Lake Erie Basin covers parts of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario and is the most densely populated basin among the Great Lakes.Lake Erie also is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, which contributes to its susceptibility to algae outbreaks.

Climate change too exacerbates the problem: severe storms bring more run off and sediment into the lake and warmer weather elevates the water temperature.

Roughly 4.5 million acres of agriculture land drains into the Maumee River watershed, which leads to the lake’s western basin where the blooms are most pronounced.

Doug Wagner, superintendent of the Oregon Water Treatment Plant, which draws water from Maumee Bay, said the solution is obvious.

“They (farmers) need to stop the nutrient loading,” said Wagner. “Plain and simple, they need to stop the nutrient loading. The farmers say ‘Oh, it’s not us, not us.’ The treatment plants say ‘It’s not us, not us.’ But the nutrients are coming from somewhere.”

Treatment plants, which have billed customers for millions of dollars in upgrades over the years, spend thousands of dollars a week testing and treating drinking water for microcystin and other harmful toxins generated by algae blooms. Wagner estimates he spends $60,000 a season. He said it’s time for agriculture to do its part: “Pretty much they’re going to have to cut it off.”

Adam Sharp, vice president for public policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said, “We recognize this is a complex issue and there are a number of sources to the issue —not just agriculture. But we are certainly committed to dealing with our part of the issue.”

Ohio agriculture is a $100 billion industry with 75,000 farmers and a powerful lobby in Columbus. Sharp said Ohio farmers have been applying less phosphorous to the fields and practicing more conservation methods than ever before. He said more study is needed to determine what else should be done.

Senate Bill 150 was signed into law before the Toledo water crisis. It requires anyone applying commercial fertilizer to 50 acres or more to take a course and get certified within three years.

“Senate Bill 150 is a really great step in the right direction and it’s going to help, but everybody knows that it’s not enough,” said Reutter. For one thing, it doesn’t cover farmers who are applying manure to fields. The Ohio Department of Agriculture licensed 204 concentrated animal feeding operations — megafarms — across the state.

“There is absolutely no excuse why we can’t to a better job collectively for a healthier Lake Erie,” said Gardner, who has worked on lake issues and represented shoreline communities for 15 years. “It’s absolutely imperative that we work harder to do more for a healthier Lake Erie. I think concurrently we need a strong agriculture economy. And I’ve always said we can achieve both.”

Democratic lawmakers want the Maumee River watershed declared “distressed,” which would trigger more stringent requirements for fertilizer and manure applications. Gardner isn’t ready to go that far and says instead Ohio should look at targeting areas for prompt attention and perhaps speeding up how long farmers have to comply with Senate Bill 150.

Gardner also is quick to point out work Ohio officials have already done: $3 million for the Healthy Lake Erie Fund, application for a $20 million federal grant to help with agriculture run off issues, $10 million in state funds to find alternatives to dumping dredging material into the lake, Senate Bill 150 and cooperation between three state departments — EPA, natural resources and agriculture — to address the issues.

‘Trial by error’

Some of the nutrients in Lake Erie come from non-farm sources, such as lawn fertilizer and combined sewage overflows from municipalities, and those sources are sometimes great distances from the vulnerable water resource.

Last week, the Detroit metro area flooded during heavy downpours, overwhelming sewer systems and forcing millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into rivers and lakes. Much of that drains to Lake Erie.

In Ohio, 23 plants serving 2.6 million customers draw drinking water from Lake Erie.

Reutter said that while plants may pull in water containing high levels of toxins from the algae bloom, the finished drinking water will be safe.

Still, he warned the blooms will get worse if no action is taken to clean up the lake.

“If you do nothing, this gets much, much worse,” he said.

There are no national standards for how often water plants should test for microcystin or protocol for how to treat the water. Kelly Frey, superintendent of the Ottawa County water treatment plant, said operators have been trying out different methods. He likens it to using bleach and detergent on a load of dirty laundry: No one is quite sure how much of each and what combination will get the tough stains out.

“It’s a little bit of trial by error,” he said.

Reutter does not expect another “do not drink” in Toledo. Testing and treatment strategies now in place make that highly unlikely, he said.

Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler too said the state now has a standard protocol for how to conduct the tests, which should help manage problems that surface. It is up to each plant operator to decide how frequently to test and what treatments to use, he said.

Watchmann is skeptical the crisis in Toledo is enough to bring about action.

“My guess is it’ll blow over,” he said. “Unless it happens again, agriculture will keep its head in the dirt.”

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