Fish kills in Ohio dramatize nation’s algae problem

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It’s the 45th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, legislation precipitated by the infamous burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland that feeds into Lake Erie. Indeed that incident and Lake Erie, dubbed a “dead” lake, became the symbol of the nation’s commitment to protecting waters. Today Lake Erie is again the center of attention, this time for its green slime and dead fish.

To be sure, since the Cuyahoga caught fire on June 22, 1969, the cleanup of discharges into the river under the 1972 Clean Water Act means it now supports boating, fishing, housing and entertainment along its banks. Clearly the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie’s problems electrified clean water and the environment as public issues at that time.

Today, once again, Lake Erie may be the symbol for the growing problems our nation’s waterways are facing from algae blooms. Specifically investigators recently linked three large fish kills in August to livestock manure that had been spread on farm fields in northwestern Ohio. Officials estimate that 66,000 fish died that month, killed by the manure runoff from local farms.

An Ohio law put into place two years ago to combat harmful algae in Lake Erie prohibits farmers from spreading manure on fields within 24 hours of expected heavy rain because it contains phosphorous that feeds algae. But many environmental, boating and fishing groups argue that the state needs much stricter rules on allowable quantities and overall disposal of manure, and those current voluntary efforts are obviously not enough. The manure also contains ammonia that pulls the oxygen out of creeks and streams and kills fish.

In the most recent case about 15,000 fish along a 10-mile stretch of a creek in Williams County were found dead last week. What's not known is whether the manure was deposited just before rain washed it into area creeks or whether too much manure was put down, said Jeremy Payne, a wildlife investigator with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Notably Ohio, Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario have agreed to sharply reduce the amount of phosphorus from farm fertilizers, livestock manure and sewage treatment plants that flow into western Lake Erie within the next 10 years. Michigan has designated its part of Lake Erie as impaired.

More national attention to the problem was delivered by the New York Times on Oct. 3 when it published “Miles of Algae Covering Lake Erie.” The article was illustrated by many photographs of the harmful algae bloom in the western portion of the lake.

On Sept. 26 the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite with NASA captured these natural-color images of a large phytoplankton bloom in western Lake Erie.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, responded to the article by calling on Congress to play a role in rolling back harmful algae blooms. “Forthcoming infrastructure legislation, farm-bill reauthorization and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative can help undergird a federal strategy,” Kaptur wrote. “Ultimately, a coordinated response that identifies sources, enforces standards and fosters innovation must save our Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water on earth.”

Others are taking more direct action. For example, two organizations — the Environmental Law and Policy Center and Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie — are suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency to request an “impaired” designation for the open waters of western Lake Erie. Calling the lake impaired would set limits on pollution sources, including agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment plants.

“The Clean Water Act is still the law of the land and we intend to make the EPA do its job to protect our environment, our health and Toledo's drinking water,” said Mike Ferner, leader of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie. He was referring to an incident in which algae blooms forced 500,000 people off Toledo-area water systems for three days in 2014.

Experience with clean-water issues tells us success requires regulation with enforcement. It isn’t sufficient to rely on good intentions or voluntary programs. It’s pretty obvious that large farming and livestock operations are contributing heavily to phosphorous runoff and water-quality problems. The EPA calculates that a reduction of 1.25 million pounds of phosphorous would bring a 20 percent reduction. An additional 7.3 million pounds would be required to reach 40 percent.

That won’t get done without strong rules and a firm regulatory hand. Until then, the algae blooms will keep coming, and boating and fishing will be negatively affected.


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