Beating Ohio’s algae problem with $30 million?

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A plan to give farmers $30 million to make changes that will keep fertilizers in fields and out of Ohio’s waterways was unveiled by Gov. Mike DeWine in a program to battle algal blooms, particularly in Lake Erie.

The funding comes from the governor’s H2Ohio initiative, announced last November, to protect waterways. “H2Ohio will provide farm-by-farm support to help farmers minimize phosphorus runoff while increasing profit over the long run,” DeWine said.

But will it?

Farmers can apply for the money beginning in February, and while initially limited to 14 counties, DeWine is expected to expand the program. Its first focus, however, will be on the Maumee River Watershed in the Toledo area, where drinking water has been impacted by massive algal blooms in recent years, including the western basin of Lake Erie, Ohio’s most popular boating and fishing area.

A recent survey of large communities whose drinking water comes from Lake Erie — namely water treatment plants from Toledo to Cleveland — spent an extra $81.2 million testing and treating because of the blooms. At the Toledo plant alone, $30,000 to $40,000 a day was spent on carbon to prevent algae from getting into the drinking water.

The $30 million for Ohio farmers must be used in one of 10 ways that have been scientifically proven to keep fertilizers in fields. As admirable as the initiative is, however, there is no compelling reason for farmers to take action and seek the funds. That’s because fertilizer use on farms has escaped most environmental regulations that apply to other polluting industries.

Cornerstone federal and state environmental laws, such as the Clean Air and the Clean Water acts, were written at a time when addressing pollution from industries with smokestacks and tailpipes was the national focus, not raising corn and spreading manure. Indeed, while large manure-generating, concentrated animal feeding operations need some federal environmental permits, farming isn’t subject to the same EPA monitoring, testing and corrective enforcement applied to industrial operations.

Truth is, farming has worked hard to keep things this way. Powerful groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation routinely oppose most new laws or regulations. The AFBF takes the viewpoint that environmental policies for agriculture should go no further than voluntary measures. In fact, it’s well-known that the only role it sees for increased government involvement in farming is giving farmers more money.

Moreover, even the panels of ranchers and farmers who advise the EPA on agricultural issues consistently indicate objection to anything but voluntary measures. It’s reported there is clear antipathy toward the EPA and the agency’s communications that suggest farming can harm the environment, and that the EPA shouldn’t regulate soil on farms and ranches.

Corn, the country’s top crop, requires more fertilizer than most crops. As much as two-thirds of the corn crop goes to refineries or processors for ethanol or animal feed. There’s also an increasing number concentrated animal feeding operations in the country. In Ohio, for example, there are currently two new applications pending for new CAFOs that will house more than 1,000 animals each. These large livestock operations funnel manure into pits and lagoons that can hold tens of millions of gallons and produce as much nutrient-rich waste as large U.S. cities. This is then spread on farmland, where much of it can enter streams, rivers and lakes.

Former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said: “Voluntary participation or compliance was not going to be sufficient to get the kind of really significant change that the state’s situation required.” Yes, the Land of 10,000 Lakes has algae bloom issues like so many others, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, which now has a resulting dead zone the size of New Jersey.

The bottom line is agricultural runoff is estimated to account for a whopping 90 percent of Ohio’s phosphorus flowing into western Lake Erie. And since 2011, Ohio communities have spent more than $3.1 billion on upgrades to municipal treatment plants that experts say impact just 9 percent of the state’s algae problems.

So the $30 million voluntary initiative is actually continuing resistance against needed enforceable regulatory standards that will actually reduce manure and fertilizer pollution. Ohio’s leaders — indeed, governors in many states across the country — should concede that voluntary measures won’t make our waterways clean again and get the spine to take effective action.

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