The tangled web we weave

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They all stink—ethanol, animal manure, algal blooms and, worst of all, the politicians that promise reforms but are nothing more than a David Copperfield act in Vegas—big-talk and optical illusions, but no positive results.

Even worse, all these seemingly random elements directly impact boating. Don’t believe me? Read on.

More ethanol?

Recently, President Trump indicated that he’s looking at helping farmers hurt by the trade war with China by increasing requirements for ethanol production. Such a move would include raising the Renewable Fuel Standard to include a 1-billion-gallon increase in ethanol-based fuel. The RFW already has a tentative mandate for 2020, requiring production of more than 20 billion gallons of biofuels, including 14 billion gallons of ethanol. The president’s increase would add another billion gallons to placate farmers and the corn lobby.

The biofuel lobby also wants the President to stop giving some refineries exemptions from the requirement to blend in ethanol. Trump told the EPA last month that it could give 31 exemptions, which farmers claim is undermining the 15 billion-gallon market for corn-based ethanol.

Enter the oil refiners denouncing the idea. Brendan Williams, vice president of government relations for PBF Energy, points out that not only would boosting ethanol production be more expensive for refiners, the extra corn-based fuel isn’t needed in the first place.

“The law essentially mandates more ethanol/biodiesel than there is consumer demand,” Williams said. “We really need to adjust the volume downward than mandate more ethanol than we can use.”

When the Renewable Fuel Standard was enacted by Congress in 2005, requiring oil refiners to make more ethanol, it was supposed to reduce our need for foreign oil. We now export oil, so that assumption of need was essentially smoke blown up Congress’s kilt. For farmers, on the other hand, it had the ring of ca-ching!

Ethanol producers have popped up all over the Midwest. Millions of acres normally planted with other crops were rushed into corn for ethanol. Even land designated as conservation acreage went back under the plow for more corn.

Ironically, that has been a prime contributor to the unintended consequence of massive algae blooms in our nation’s waterways.

The Manure Connection

It’s no secret that runoff from the unchecked spreading of animal manure to fertilizer farmland is the single biggest contributor to the damage of our lakes and rivers. Corn requires more fertilizer than most other crops.

Up until now, politicians have talked a good game about wanting to impose common-sense limits on manure but, in truth, all the talk about reducing runoff and improving waterways has been just bluster.

Enter Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers. His administration is reportedly taking the first steps toward creating restrictions on manure and fertilizer in areas prone to nitrate contamination. Last year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources imposed manure restrictions in 15 northeastern Wisconsin counties in response to drinking water contamination in Kewaunee County. The department is now developing an administrative rule imposing similar restrictions in “sensitive areas” with permeable soils. The unidentified areas will be defined in the formal rule language. And while it could take months to draft, it puts the issue of healthy Wisconsin waterways on the front burner.

Of course, not everyone’s happy about striving to have cleaner water. The Wisconsin dairy industry is raising a stink, so to speak, about potential new regulations governing where factory farms can store manure. Officials are crafting new farm standards that would expand setbacks for manure storage.

Specifically, new farms with 1,000 or more animals, or farms looking to expand to 1,000 animals or beyond, would have to place manure storage facilities anywhere from 1,000 feet to 2,500 feet from their neighbors’ property lines to minimize odor. What’s needed in this developing regulation is a similar requirement for storing or spreading manure within similar distances of streams and waterways, or where runoff will impact the waterways downstream.

Ohioans want a crackdown

A year-long study by the Environmental Law & Policy Center points to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) as a major source of nutrient overload and algae blooms contaminating Lake Erie from the Maumee River at the lake’s west end.

As a follow-up to the CAFOs study, ELPC released the results of a poll the group says proves the public would like to see more action taken to curb CAFOs. The poll indicates that while a majority of northwest Ohioans are receptive to stricter government regulations, they’re even more inclined to approve measures after they learn more about CAFOs and their connection to algal blooms on Lake Erie.

“We commissioned the poll so we can better understand the public’s depth of knowledge around the causes of (algal) blooms in Lake Erie and what people know about CAFOs and related manure run-off pollution,” said Howard Learner, ELPC executive director, “and whether people are willing to support regulation of CAFOs, and how important this is to voters when they make their decisions at the ballot boxes.”

Learner went on to say that while commercial fertilizer from corn and soybean operations has gotten expansive press coverage, the manure pollution from CAFOs has mostly flown under the radar. “Over the past decade, the number of CAFOs has increased by almost 40 percent and the number of animals in the watershed has doubled from 9 million to more than 20 million,” Learner said. “These are not mom-and-pop small farms. These farms have many thousands of chickens, pigs and cows and produce many tons of manure that’s spread on fields and is stored in lagoons, then run into waterways that flow into Lake Erie.”

Learner said under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, phosphorous loading in Lake Erie must be reduced by 40 percent by 2025 and progress made toward reducing it by 20 percent by 2020. “It’s time that Ohio and Gov. (Mike) DeWine honor that commitment and take the action which polling shows people in northwest Ohio truly want,” Learner said.

Whether the last link in this chain, the politicians, make some moves that will eliminate these threats to our waterways—and to boating—remains to be seen. 

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