Ohio treads water as Lake Erie struggles

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


It’s natural to protect our greatest resource.

We do it instinctively at all costs with our homes.

Why not our water?

If you were a state privileged to have 200 miles of shoreline on 20 per cent of Earth’s fresh surface water you’d guard its integrity with your life, right?

Not Ohio.

Familiar statements reoccur when you read about Ohio’s Lake Erie shore over time.

  • Lake Erie is home to the greatest fishery in the Great Lakes yet it remains the most chicagoviewvulnerable of them.
  • Lake Erie is beset with life-threatening — for the lake and the public — algae blooms.
  • Its beaches have the worst water quality by a wide margin of any state in the region, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s annual report on beach health.
  • These problems threaten not only Ohio’s environmental quality of life but are a drag on its economy.

With problems like that you would think that Ohio’s elected officials – federal, state and local — would make protecting the lake their highest environmental and economic priority.

But no, Ohio treats the lake like the poor step-child who is given a Christmas present because it’s obligatory -not out of genuine caring.

Here’s what I mean.

Algae’s recent threat to Lake Erie has been known for some time. It made regional and national headlines in 2011 when the bloom covered more than 1,900 square miles.

Alarms went off.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would make combating algae a top priority. The International Joint Commission — the bi-national agency that advises the U.S. and Canada on trans-border water issues — launched an aggressive study on how to deal with algae.

Released last year, the study calls for strict limits on the algae-inducing phosphorous that can flow to the lake. Fertilizer from agricultural runoff is the primary culprit.

But weak federal action and recommendations aren’t enough. It’s up to Ohioans to lead on the issue.

So here’s what passes for action in Ohio:

In June, Gov. John Kasich signed legislation that will require farmers who use fertilizer to take a training class on its proper application. That begins in 2017. And in exchange for developing voluntary plans for managing phosphorous runoff farmers will be given legal protections should they be sued for polluting.

That’s it.

In the press release announcing the signing, Kasich said, ah, nothing. Which makes sense given that the bill does next to nothing to combat algae.

A budding champion?

But wait.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a budding Great Lakes champion to some who use that moniker, has something to say about algae blooms.

Portman along with Florida Sen. Bill Nelson recently spearheaded passage of a bill to reauthorize 1998 algae legislation. It’s designed to study the toxic green goo and develop an action plan by 2016.

There’s no more.

Study and develop a plan by 2016 which is five years after the massive 2011 bloom is all there is. And who knows if there ever will be a plan and if it will be funded and implemented. After the self-serving press releases projects like this can easily fall by the wayside.

This is what Ohio is doing. It’s diddling around with soft, voluntary measures to encourage farmers to pay attention to their farming practices plus more study and maybe a plan in a couple of years.

Rolling eyes unwarranted

I rolled my eyes when I heard about the International Joint Commission’s Lake Erie study. A slow moving international organization doing a study is hardly inspirational.

But the result was worth the wait.

In its report on the study the commission used direct language that didn’t couch what needed to be done. It recommended targeted phosphorous reductions. The report contained scientific rigor and the process that led to it was replete with quantitative and qualitative public comments.

Most important, it says current voluntary programs are “clearly failing.”

In the U.S. the report sits with the USEPA waiting a response.

This isn’t Lake Erie’s first battle with algae.

Phosphorous in detergents was the culprit in the 1960’s and ‘70’s until they were finally banned in 1977. The lake recovered but would it have without the ban? I doubt it.

Chirping critics

OK, I can hear my Ohio critics chirping.

Chicago know-it-all media guy telling us what to do. Has he ever even been to Ohio?

I was born there — in Hamilton outside of Cincinnati. Many summers were spent near central Ohio’s Indian Lake.

I lived in Akron for three years and worked in Cleveland. One of the scariest moments I’ve encountered was on Lake Erie during an intense summer thunderstorm.

I was raised in the south suburbs of Detroit a twenty minute drive from Lake Erie’s beaches. My family frequented those beaches often when I was a kid. That is until my dad determined they were too polluted and we retreated to inland lakes.

There are no silver bullets to remedy Ohio’s Lake Erie problems but there are things that can be done.

Ohio officialdom needs to endorse the International Joint Commission’s Lake Erie algae report and work to implement its key features. It’s the best hope we have. More study and monitoring won’t produce a better result.

Two Ohio elected officials need to join their regional colleagues who are working on sustainability issues.

Kasich has been conspicuously absent at the last two meetings of Great Lakes governors. Given Ohio and Lake Erie’s issues with water, his absence is like having your shortstop not show up for the big game.

Similarly Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson should join the regional organization of mayors. With among the dirtiest beaches in the region maybe there’s something he and Cleveland could learn from other cities with similar problems.

Being an active part of those groups shows interest in regional sustainability issues. It’s not an answer but it’s a start.

I like Ohio and enjoy my historical connections.

But given Lake Erie’s troubled history and ongoing fragility it bothers me to see the casual treatment of its significant problems.

Lake Erie deserves better than an updated version of what hasn’t worked from Ohio’s elected officials and 11 million residents.

Those types of plans are already “clearly failing.”

3 thoughts on “Ohio treads water as Lake Erie struggles

  1. You are right on! One grammar pointer: Ohioans is plural, not possessive, so it doesn’t take an apostrophe. :)

  2. We also need to look at controlling pollution sources in Indiana and Michigan. But yes, the Ohio political machine seems oblivious to Lake Erie’s peril.

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