By the end of the year, as much as 1.1 million cubic yards of sediment -- enough to fill 110,000 trucks -- will be dredged from the Maumee River and western Lake Erie's Maumee Bay to keep the Toledo shipping channel open to cargo vessels.
That task is vital to the economies of Toledo and the Great Lakes region. But policymakers need to find better ways to dispose of all this dredged sediment.
Toledo's shipping channel is the most heavily dredged in the region. If it isn't maintained, less cargo gets hauled and prices go up. So does climate-altering pollution: To haul the same cargo as ships do, trucks and trains would emit far more carbon dioxide.
The massive annual dredging operation undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has vexed public officials and caused friction between Michigan and Ohio governors for almost 30 years. They agree that the corps should not redeposit nearly everything it digs up in Lake Erie's North Maumee Bay.
But the corps does that because of a lack of options. Space at the Toledo area's only confined disposal facility, in Oregon, is limited to sediment that is too contaminated to go back into the lake. The cost of a new facility is estimated at more than $200 million; the federal government would pay no more than 65 percent of that expense.
Scientists believe swirling phosphorus-laden sediment contributes to the growth of western Lake Erie's noxious algae. Much of the sediment includes fertilizers applied to area farms, lawns, and golf courses.
Even with efforts to reduce runoff, phosphorus levels remain high. They are a combination of what gets in the water and how invasive species pass nutrients through their systems.
Dredging is not the only reason there's more phosphorus. But Lake Erie has had record algae outbreaks the past two summers, which have cost the state jobs.
Agriculture is not solely to blame. Other things must change, including the way dredged material from the Toledo shipping channel is disposed of.
New Orleans has North America's most heavily dredged port and, like Toledo, is fiscally challenged. Yet the corps works with state and federal agencies there to rebuild wetlands and repair barrier islands with dredged material.
Similarly beneficial reuses of sediment must be deployed more in the Toledo area. Even if money were available to build another confined disposal facility, the large sum it would cost would buy only a little more time.
Policymakers need to achieve meaningful reductions in runoff from farms, roads, and parking lots. They also need to crack down harder on ships that transport invasive species into the Great Lakes.
At stake is the Great Lakes region's $7 billion fishery, and the maintenance of its recreation and tourism industries. The answer is not just a bigger holding cell for dredged sediment.