There is more than one strategy for Lake Erie


When you really, really want to be sure your pants won’t fall down, you go with the belt-and-suspenders strategy: You put on a belt, but in case a belt is not going to be enough to keep your pants up, you’ve got your suspenders.

The same can be said for strategies to clean up the pollution that is causing toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, says one of the environmental lawyers suing to force the federal government to designate the western basin of the lake impaired under the terms of the Clean Water Act.

While it is great that Ohio’s state environmental officials are pursuing research and voluntary pollution-control measures to reduce the amount of algae-feeding phosphorus flowing into the lake, if those approaches don’t deliver results, the Clean Water Act will.

The downtown Toledo algae bloom on the Maumee River in September.
The downtown Toledo algae bloom on the Maumee River in September.

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Madeline Fleisher of the Environmental Law and Policy Center made the analogy at this year’s Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo.

There must be more than one strategy — and more than one path of action — to save Lake Erie. 

Joining her on a panel at the conference was Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Karl Gebhardt, a former Ohio Farm Bureau lobbyist who is Gov. John Kasich’s point man on lake issues.

Mr. Gebhardt repeated the Kasich administration’s argument against asking the U.S. EPA to intervene: The state is working hard to clean up the rivers and streams that flow into the lake and voluntary measures will be enough to reduce pollution. Federal intervention that would mean more regulations on Ohio’s farmers is not necessary, he said.

He added that the Ohio EPA needs more hard data about just how much phosphorus is out in the lake. A new series of open-water monitors should provide that data in two years, he said.

Also on the panel was Kevin Goodwin from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. Michigan is pursuing all the same kinds of voluntary measures, research, and data collection as Ohio, he said. But Michigan is doing one more thing: It’s using a pair of suspenders.

Michigan declared its portion of Lake Erie impaired a year ago and would not resist the federal intervention under the Clean Water Act.

Unlike Ohio’s expert, who claims that the data in hand so far amounts to nothing more than anecdotes and unreliable samples from “Mrs. Smith’s sixth-grade class,” Mr. Goodwin said Michigan is confident with the algae data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And also unlike his Ohio counterpart, Mr. Goodwin shared data that showed Michigan is having some success reducing the amount of phosphorus pollution, at least in the River Raisin.

Even more than that, from the shores of Michigan, environmental experts trust what they can see. “These blooms signal something is really out of whack,” Mr. Goodwin said.

Something is indeed out of whack. Lake Erie’s algae problem is a threat to the health, safety, and economy of northwest Ohio. The threat is urgent, and one obvious mechanism for addressing Lake Erie pollution is federal intervention. It may not be the only one. And it is not a panacea. But we have to employ more than one approach, for Ohio’s mostly voluntary approach is not getting the job done.