Two weekends ago, a half-million people in metropolitan Toledo awoke to learn that their drinking water was poisoned.
Since then, we’ve heard lots of talk about the “crisis,” the “emergency,” the “disaster,” the “wake-up call.” We’ve watched politicians produce urgent to-do lists for others, while denying their own culpability.
But meaningful action? Not so you’d notice.
We know what tainted Toledo’s water: a toxin called microcystin, which can cause liver failure. We know its source: toxic algae in western Lake Erie.
We know the primary cause of these algae blooms: excessive phosphorus polluting the lake. And we know the chief source of this so-called nutrient: farm runoff from fertilizer and manure into Lake Erie and its tributaries, notably the Maumee River.
We know the solution as well as the problem: Eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the sources of phosphorus pollution. We don’t need more studies; the issue has been studied to death over decades.
What we need is action — right now, not next month or next year or in five years or a decade. Such action, or its absence, to protect public health and safety in northwest Ohio and beyond will be more a matter of politics than of science.
The prescription is to limit the nutrients that are getting into Lake Erie,” Jack Shaner, the deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council, told me. “Agriculture is the least regulated of all the sources. We need the political will to fill the prescription.”
The council is among nine prominent environmental groups in Ohio that have issued an action agenda for cleaning up Lake Erie. It’s a good foundation for debate.
Gov. John Kasich calls Lake Erie “our crown jewel.” His administration can safeguard that jewel by declaring the Maumee River watershed “in distress.”
That designation would require, not merely encourage, farms in the watershed — factory farms as well as family ones — to use best management practices when they apply fertilizer. These practices are cost-effective as well as environmentally sound.
Mr. Kasich can issue that declaration right now, all by himself. He doesn’t need the approval of feckless state lawmakers or anyone else.
Then the governor can call the General Assembly back to Columbus to enact specific legislation to curb algae growth. One such law would ban the spreading of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground — a major source of phosphorus pollution.
Another would close the state’s “manure loophole,” which enables large concentrated animal feeding operations to avoid state certification that their manure-management practices are appropriate.
The loophole widens when large livestock farms sell large quantities of manure to crop farmers; its application doesn’t require certification either.
Such measures would require Mr. Kasich to stand up to lobbies for factory farms and fertilizer manufacturers (Koch Industries, whose principal David Koch is a top contributor to the governor’s re-election campaign, is one of the world’s largest makers and marketers of fertilizer). If the governor is willing to do that, maybe state lawmakers — especially his fellow Republicans who control the legislature — can find their backbones as well.
Governor Kasich can invite his counterparts in other Great Lakes states and Ontario to a summit on Lake Erie algae, similar to their meeting last year on the threat posed to the lake by an invasion of Asian carp. The governors can set hard targets for their states to limit the phosphorus that flows into the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a U.S.-Canadian pact, proposes such numbers. The governors can lobby their national governments to make these targets law.
But none of this is happening. Late last week, the Kasich administration offered a bunch of modest measures: $150 million in loans to upgrade local water treatment plants and sewer systems, $1.25 million for farmers who take voluntary steps to prevent nutrient runoff, $2 million to Ohio universities for algae research. All are useful. None is a game-changer.
A recent poll conducted by state environmental groups concludes that two-thirds of Ohio voters — including a majority of Republicans — support stronger state regulation of agriculture. Paying attention to voters, especially in an election year, is generally a good idea for politicians.
Mr. Kasich’s supporters, including a considerable number of Toledoans who endured the water emergency, insist that cleaning up Lake Erie is President Obama’s job. In fact, Washington — the White House and Congress — has done more to protect Lake Erie than Columbus has.
The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the new farm bill include specific, useful measures to curb pollution by phosphorus and other nutrients. Those efforts must proceed; shortsighted budget cutting can’t be allowed to hobble them.
Washington can do other things. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can stop the practice of dumping phosphorus-laden sediment from the Toledo shipping channel and other harbors into Lake Erie. Dumping this dredged material stirs up phosphorus and provides cover for algae blooms.
Of course, Ohio can ban open lake dumping, as every other Great Lakes state except New York has done. The state is working to find better uses for some dredged sediment in Toledo; that’s necessary but not sufficient.
Washington can set a specific standard for microcystin in drinking water, which would govern procedures for monitoring, testing, and prevention. It can proceed with plans to strengthen protection of the wetlands and streams that filter polluted runoff before it gets into Lake Erie.
The city of Toledo has work to do as well. It needs to upgrade its obsolete — in some ways dangerously so — water and sewer infrastructure. The system’s customers will have to be ready to pay more for that modernization.
First, though, Mayor D. Michael Collins should commission a prompt, expert outside review of the system’s operations, equipment, and pollution controls, especially for phosphorus. The city can’t investigate itself on this one.
The Collins administration also must develop a detailed plan to protect Toledo’s drinking water from contamination. Incredibly, the city doesn’t have such a plan now.
Should we look at placing the municipal water and sewer system under the control of a regional authority? Sure, but it’s not the most urgent issue at the moment. You don’t talk about redecorating the house while it’s on fire.
The immediate threat to Toledo from Lake Erie pollution isn’t over. Neither is the long-term damage to its economic recovery: How many potential employers and residents do you imagine are thinking of moving to a community where the drinking water is suspect?
“Without the political will, we’re going to see another event as we saw in Toledo,” Mr. Shaner says. “If this kind of event doesn’t spur action, what will?”
It took 20 years of human-made abuse to bring Lake Erie to its current battered state. We won’t heal it overnight.
But we have to start. And we have to start today.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
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