Has Ohio found a way to end algae blooms?

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Algaeake Erie

There’s no question that serious actions to stop the out-of-control algae bloom problems in our nation’s waterways have been painfully lacking, what with conservation groups and waterfront communities pushing for stricter runoff regulations while farm organizations successfully lobbying against any mandatory rules. But Ohio may have found a simple answer — pay ’em.

Acknowledging that past efforts have failed to curb the phosphorous runoff that primarily fuels green slime summers in Lake Erie and other inland lakes, Governor Mike DeWine unveiled his plan to address the waterways scourge by writing checks to farmers that reduce the known culprit, phosphorus-loaded runoff.

As part of his overall, $172 million “H2Ohio” water quality program, DeWine has outlined an effort that will also include creating new wetlands, repairing failing septic tanks and replacing lead drinking-water pipes.

Focusing more on the farm-runoff problem, DeWine proposes that farmers who follow a 10-step phosphorus reduction program would receive money from the state on a per-acre basis. The steps will include crop rotation, slowing water runoff, and minimizing the impact of the fertilizers and manure that contain the phosphorous. The exact amount of money farmers would get is still in the works.

DeWine’s plan will initially be limited to farmers in the large Maumee River watershed which is well-known as the main source of phosphorus that annually pours into western Lake Erie. Those farmers will be able to enroll in the program in time for next year’s spring planting season. Moreover, in the future, every Ohio farmer will be eligible to participate, an acknowledgment that while the slime problem in Lake Erie is the icon for the green goo debacle, there is a growing problem in other Ohio waterways, too. For example, recently residents were warned to avoid contact with the water at Springfield Lake near Akron due to elevated microcystin levels in a harmful algal bloom.

Under the initial H2Ohio program: (1) each participating farm will have an individualized nutrient management plan; (2) each county in the Maumee River watershed will be given an overall goal to ensure accountability; and (3) all results will be released to the public.

It’s a fact that how to deal with agricultural runoff has been a political fight in the Buckeye State for years. DeWine’s predecessor, John Kasich, issued an executive order that would have led to much-needed mandatory rules. But state lawmakers got steamrollered by push back from farmers and even Kasich’s own director of Ohio’s Department of Agriculture.

Hope is increased this time around, however, as DeWine’s office has quickly released statements from a number of farmers’ organizations, food companies, and conservation groups praising the H2Ohio program. In addition, supporters like George Bullerjahn, director of the Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health at Bowling Green State University, has said this anti-algal bloom initiative is more likely to succeed than past efforts because there is buy-in both from farmers and environmental groups, and because there’s now enough money to tackle the problem on a wider scale.

There’s more good news in the H2Ohio program, too. Some funds will be designated to support the development of new wetlands in strategic areas around the Maumee River watershed. This will further help filter out phosphorous, as well as manage flooding and potentially offer more recreational benefits. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, under director Mary Mertz, an accomplished sailor, is tasked with filling in these blanks and announcing details in the next few weeks.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Here’s more to the water-quality story most of us don’t know. The landmark Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) actually allows regulated pollutants to be dumped into bodies of water, albeit a permit is required in case. Congress authorized this general framework to protect the quality of local waters and delegated its administration to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states. It stablished the first national standards for sewage treatment and significantly increased federal funding to help communities meet the law’s standards.

As a result, the EPA publishes scientifically justified limits for various pollutants. And, states can also write standards for those pollutants that are at least as protective as federally recommended criteria. It has all resulted in water quality standards for over 150 different pollutants, such as toxic chemicals, nitrogen and pathogens. Further, more than $129 billion has been spent on water-related infrastructure, like water treatment plants.

BUT there is a notable exception to all this . . . the CWA exempted most agricultural uses from any permit applications, so that farmers spraying fertilizer would not need to seek a permit to do so. Nutrient overload, however, is a “widespread and worsening problem,” according to recent EPA reports. Seriously?

Whether Ohio has finally come up with a viable plan that will give farmers acceptable compensation for doing the right thing — like greatly reducing the amounts of fertilizer and manure spread on fields that’s surely going to run off into nearby waterways — remains to be seen.

But for those of us who know clean water is a must for the true enjoyment of the great family boating and fishing we sell and love, there’s a least some renewed hope here. 

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