Lake Erie boating interests demand officials get tough on algae blooms

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Fed up with green gunk in the water, Ohio’s boating industry, boat owners, environmental groups and others are demanding that state officials get a backbone and end a pattern of delays. Some have dubbed it the second Battle of Lake Erie (the first was during the War of 1812).

By July each year, Lake Erie is plagued with the cyanobacteria known as microcystis (blue-green algae), which lasts beyond October. “It has an obvious negative impact on boating and boat sales,” said Bryan Ralston, executive director of the Boating Associations of Ohio. “The failure to take needed action and attempts to delay mandating changes must come to an end this week.”

Ralston’s reference is to the expectation that today the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission will report on issues surrounding Gov. John Kasich’s recent executive order to reduce nutrient levels in Lake Erie. Kasich drafted an aggressive order in July calling for designating as distressed by phosphorus pollution eight watersheds that drain into the western basin of Lake Erie. The more phosphorus in the water, the faster the algae grows.

If a watershed is designated as distressed, the state can set standards to "abate the degradation of the waters of [Ohio] by residual farm products, manure or soil sediment." Such a designation would set restrictions on farmers’ use of fertilizers, which is the No. 1 cause of the green scum blooms. Moreover, the algae can contaminate drinking water and irritate the eyes, lungs and skin.

Kasich’s action seemed like a big win for Lake Erie and boating. But before a victory lap could begin, his order required the approval of the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission. Instead of dealing with the executive order, that panel sent Kasich's proposal to a task force for study. Can you say “stall”?

This is despite members such as Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University and a task force member, stressing the need for urgency. She said it will take everyone’s help to reduce the nutrient loads going into the basin. “I understand a lot of these things take time, but this is an issue that has been going on a very long time,” Johnson said.

At today’s scheduled meeting of the full commission, members will either vote on Kasich’s request or return it to the task force for more study. Should the latter happen, “there will certainly be valid accusations that the commission is catering to special interests and ignoring the interests of Ohioans as a whole,” Ralston said.

In some ways, this fight for Lake Erie has been a soap opera. After Kasich’s order, David T. Daniels, the longtime director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, openly opposed the governor's policies and efforts to improve Lake Erie water quality. And he was fired.

On the other hand, interim director Tim Derickson has urged the commission members to stay focused. “This is about watersheds in distress. Eight watersheds are what we really are debating,” he said.

You may recall that Lake Erie algae blooms hit the national spotlight in 2014, when they forced Toledo's water system to be shut down for three days. Ohio's agricultural industry subsequently agreed to a voluntary program to reduce runoff, but recent research has found those voluntary efforts aren’t working.

As expected, farmers and state lawmakers have spoken out against Kasich's executive order, claiming the governor is moving too fast to pass mandatory requirements and hasn't done enough to work out a solution with farmers. More study means more delays.

On another front, a citizen-proposed pollution-fighting amendment to the Toledo city charter titled the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” was ruled off next week’s ballot by the Ohio Supreme Court. The amendment would have declared that Lake Erie and its watershed "possess the right to exist, flourish and naturally evolve.” That would then subject lake polluters to additional penalties. Unfortunately, the decision resembled earlier rulings by the court. But that battle is hardly over, according to proponents.

In still another development, a ruling in a federal Clean Water Act case by Senior U.S. District Judge James G. Carr, of Toledo, criticized the state's historic indifference to Lake Erie's health. "As a result of [Ohio's] inattention," Carr wrote, "the risk remains that sometime in the future, upward of 500,000 northwest Ohio residents will again, as they did in August 2014, be deprived of clean, safe water for drinking, bathing, and other normal and necessary uses."

Bottom line: If the Soil and Water Conservation Commission votes to send Kasich’s order back to the task force, boating and allied interests will be right when they claim the commission is merely kicking the can down the road and failing to meet its charge to protect Ohio’s greatest natural resource. Moreover, boating is committed to carrying on the fight to end the algae problem.

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