Ohio rolling the dice on Lake Erie drinking water quality?

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Commentary

Ohio reminds me of the smoker who survives a cigarette-induced near-death experience – then continues to puff away after the crisis passes. Maybe the survivor cuts back on the dangerous habit but rolls the dice by continuing to smoke.

That’s how I see Ohio behaving after last year’s Lake Erie toxic algae-induced water crisis; the one that left 500,000 people in Toledo and Southeast Michigan without safe drinking water for three days.

Post-crisis there was the obligatory “we have to do something” rhetoric followed by bad legislation in the year-end lame duck session. It was about appearances, not substance.

Fortunately the legislation died as the clock ran out, but legislators pledged to deal with algae and agriculture pollution– the primary problem — early in 2015. It’s February and here it comes.

The good news is that the Ohio Senate is working on a bill that, if implemented would take small steps towards limiting agricultural pollution.

Dumping manure and chemical fertilizer — the pollutants — on frozen fields where they would only run off would be prohibited.chicagoview

But the bill has questionable provisions and soft language that doesn’t reassure.

It would put Ohio’s Agriculture Department in charge of farm pollution, moving it from the Department of Natural Resources. That could be akin to having a friend audit your income tax return then tell the IRS there were no problems.

And there’s the creation of an office for harmful algae management in the Department of Natural Resources. I fail to see how more bureaucracy contributes to successful outcomes.

And that’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Ohio House has limped out of the gate by holding hearings around the state on the algae issue. At this point for an Ohio legislative body to hold hearings on algae is the equivalent of the study of the obvious by the ignorant – more appropriately, by those who feign ignorance for political purposes.

Lake Erie’s algae problems have been studied to death and the verdict is in. Yes, the cause of algae blooms has a number of contributors, but runoff from agriculture is the prime problem and the one that is most manageable.

It will be interesting to see what Ohio legislators actually do.

So far Toledo Blade editors aren’t impressed. They say lawmakers are still in self-congratulatory mode for simply “considering something they should have done months ago.”

A best-case outcome for Lake Erie and clean drinking water would be for Ohio Gov. John Kasich to declare the Maumee River watershed “distressed.”

“Distressed” is an official designation that gives regulators authority that goes well beyond the current state of encouraging farmers to take voluntary measures to reduce pollution. The Maumee River is the primary vector for ag pollution into Lake Erie.

There is no evidence that a “distressed” designation is under serious consideration.

Then there’s the federal government.

It’s locked in the status quo of funding voluntary pollution control measures for agricultural via the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the new Farm Bill. The Farm Bill was enacted last year in a high-profile presidential signing at Michigan State University.

It’s the same Farm Bill now being called a “mess” the Lincoln Journal Star reports.

The algae provisions in the bill are similar to the ones that the International Joint Commission has said are a “failure.”

Thinking about the Farm Bill caused me to contact Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office for a comment about algae.

Stabenow, you see, is a key player on agriculture issues and has clout in Washington. The Farm Bill was her pet project when she chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee. For better or worse it’s hers to own and she does so proudly.

Surely Stabenow would have something of substance to say about agriculture pollution and drinking water quality for cities like Toledo. And don’t forget, the Toledo crisis affected her constituents in Southeast Michigan too.

She was also just named co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, a Congressional group focused on advancing protection for the Great Lakes, say a distressed Lake Erie.

That puts her smack dab in the middle of Great Lakes issues with a lot of accountability.

I sent her office what I hoped would be a wiggle-proof question that asked for specifics about what she would do to combat algae.

Alas, no sale. I mean no substantive response.

Stabenow’s office replied in an email with one of those generic statements politicians like to use.

It talked about the importance of the Great Lakes – we get that.

The response mentioned Stabenow’s role in “… focusing new critical resources in addressing the algae blooms in Lake Erie that led to unsafe drinking water in Southeast Michigan last summer.”

Specifics to follow, I presume. Or not. The status quo from Washington on Lake Erie is firmly in place.

As the days get longer the algae season gets closer and the pressure will mount on Ohio elected officials. They have to do something and I suspect they’ll pass minimal legislation on agriculture pollution and then take a victory lap around Columbus (but not Toledo).

Water-savvy Toledo citizens will likely stock up on bottled water as a precaution. Once bitten, twice shy should be the watchword.

I’d stock up if I lived there.

I don’t trust a political rolling of the dice on drinking water quality.

 

3 thoughts on “Ohio rolling the dice on Lake Erie drinking water quality?

  1. Interesting! I assume there is a very large difference between ‘distressed’ and ‘impaired.’ I’m curious if in the next biannual state of the water report that is due to the Feds (EPA) will include Lake Erie as being impaired (or distressed?)

  2. Wow. Trashing the conservation programs in the Farm Bill by linking to a news article that says the commodity side of the Farm Bill is a mess. Now that’s an example of some pretty sloppy and misleading journalism. Now wonder the good Senator from Michigan didn’t return his call…probably figured he couldn’t get what she told him straight and accurate.

  3. Sandy Bihn
    Western Lake Erie should follow the Clean Water Act and be declared impaired and a TMDL done . A TMDL leads the plan in the Fox River/Green Bay where phosphorus reduction requirements and an implementation plan are having real debates with how many pounds will be reduced from where at what cost in what period of time etc.
    Declaring the Maumee a Distressed watershed has little to no value. Grand Lake St. Marys completed their TMDL in 2009 and it was supposed to be followed by an implementation plan(required under the Clean Water Act). Instead Ohio created a Distressed Watershed that requires nutrient management plans which are confidential and other nebulous stuff. Ohio was required to have an implementation plan for Grand Lake St. Marys which would spell out pounds of phosphorus to be reduced in a given period of time. Distressed watersheds have no phosphorus reduction requirements, no time frame. Distressed watersheds allow manure application rates for phosphorus up to 150 ppm compared to fertilizer max rate of 40 ppm. Lake Erie needs accountable phosphorus reductions. Creating an Algae office in Ohio EPA would help to pull together all the research, data, reports etc. and should then be coordinated with a similar office of USEPA. The 12 largest lake in the world providing drinking water to eleven million people deserves no less.

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