Meat-Eaters behind algae blooms; judge scuttles Lake Erie

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No body of water draws more news than Lake Erie. This week it’s PETA claiming meat-eaters are to blame for the lake’s algae problems, while a federal judge on Thursday invalidated the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

PETA once called for all fish to be renamed “sea kittens” contending no one wants to hook a kitten (for the record, I like my sea kitten beer battered!). It didn’t get much traction. This time, however, PETA plans to hit the Great Lake’s shore with a billboard that will urge Ohioans to take personal responsibility for eliminating the algae problem by going . . . vegan.

Now while it’s not likely to work, PETA’s action squarely hits a major reason Lake Erie has become an icon for the nation’s annual green slime outbreaks. Specifically, the Ohio Lake Erie Commission reports that 85 percent of the lake’s nutrient pollution comes from farm fertilizer and manure runoff, which leads to blooms of cyanobacteria that release toxins into the water. In fact, northwest Ohio is loaded with huge corporate cattle and hog farms that produce massive amounts of manure that is widely spread on farm lands as fertilizer. That phosphorus-laden manure washes into streams and rivers that feed western Lake Erie.

“Nearby farms are poisoning Lake Erie,” says executive vice president Tracy Reiman, “PETA’s message is that no amount of money will fix this — we must all take personal responsibility and go vegan.” Perhaps, but money is going to be injected into the problem in Ohio, and it’s action that’s long overdue.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recently announced H2Ohio that will provide $176 million to address algae problems. A significant amount of that could go to farmers who effectively change practices and reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen runoff into waterways. Negatively, participation will not be mandatory even though the federal Clean Water Act requires states to identify waters not meeting water quality goals and prioritize them for action to restore their beneficial uses.

In more good news, Ohio has announced it will move to cap the total maximum daily phosphorus load (TMDL) going into Lake Erie. On the down, it’ll take another two to three years to develop the TMDL, according to Ohio EPA.

The problem is not unique to Lake Erie, of course. Similar algal blooms occur in all five Great Lakes and many other socioeconomically important lakes throughout the nation. But the actions being taken by Ohio, if fulfilled, could be a model for other states that must become aggressive in dealing with the green slop of summer. And for our boating industry, clean water is a must for our long-term growth and success.

Lake Erie loses in court

In a February 2019 special election, the citizens of Toledo (located at the western end of Lake Erie) voted to provide extra protections for that body of water. They approved by 60 percent an amendment to the city charter — the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” — that asserted the lake should have legal rights as an ecosystem. In essence, it would allow any citizen to sue anyone who “causes harm” to the lake’s ecosystem, and that included farmers.

Drewes Farms Partnership responded by filing a lawsuit against Toledo, along with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost whose office represented the state. They argued that the LEBOR would give the city too much power over Lake Erie.

Federal Judge Zouhary concurred last week, ruling that the LEBOR is “a textbook example of what municipal government cannot do” and invalidated it. Writing in his decision, the judge said: “Lake Erie is not a pond in Toledo. It is one of the five Great Lakes and one of the largest lakes on Earth, bordering dozens of cities, four states, and two countries. That means the Lake’s health falls well outside the City’s constitutional right to local self-government, which encompasses only ‘the government and administration of the internal affairs of the municipality’.”

While many states are dealing with nutrients in watersheds, Ohio was the first to skip straight to possible litigation. States like Iowa and Illinois use nutrient reduction strategies to voluntarily clean up water, while Maryland has gone farther by mandating nutrient reduction practices to keep the Chesapeake Bay clean.

So. while there is more effort and money being forwarded to deal with the algae blooms, most practices in Ohio will still be voluntary. Disappointed, many concerned about the lake are saying the only real solution is mandatory regulations that limit phosphorus-based fertilizers on all farms Further, it should provide for enforcement through fines if farms exceed the limits.

Regardless, at least there is now a willingness by some states to tackle algae blooms directly. 

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