When heavy rains swamp northwest Ohio, State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) cringes.
“I almost have to say that I hate the rain, even though I know we have to have rain,” Sen. Gardner says. “Because when it rains hard like it has been these last few days, I know that phosphorus is running right off the fields and into the rivers.”
The phosphorus that makes Sen. Gardner cringe is runoff from farms that, once it flows downstream to Lake Erie, feeds the annual toxic algae blooms that plague the lake.
The lake pollution problem has been urgent for some time, but this spring brings special urgency since the Kasich administration has finally agreed to declare the western basin of the lake impaired under the terms of the Clean Water Act, and a federal judge is set to issue a ruling on a lawsuit over the matter.
What Ohio needs is a comprehensive plan to tackle the pollution problem. Mr. Gardner believes a package of bills he has proposed will finally get the state on track with resources to address the issue.
The Clean Lake 2020 Plan would dedicate $36 million to help farmers continue the voluntary phosphorus reduction efforts they’re already using, invest in the Healthy Lakes Initiative designed to find alternatives to open-lake dumping of dredged material, help county soil and water conservation districts with soil testing and conservation work, and fund more lab space and water monitoring at the Ohio State Sea Grant and Stone Lab.
Mr. Gardner also is proposing a ballot initiative to allow a $1 billion bond measure to provide lake clean-up funding for 10 years.
Absent from the package of bills are any mandates for farmers, limits on phosphorus releases, or penalties for those who would exceed those limits.
Mr. Gardner says Lake Erie needs immediate help and that help won’t come quickly if it is attached to such mandates. Those drawn-out political battles can come later, he says.
“If you don’t have mandates, you need to do this. And if you do have mandates, you still need to do this.”
The package has something that mandates will not — bipartisan support, support in both the state House and state Senate, and support from both environmental groups and agricultural groups.
Five years of voluntary measures did nothing to measurably reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing — mainly down the Maumee from northwest Ohio — into Lake Erie. There is no question that mandated conservation efforts, pollution limits, and strict enforcement are going to be necessary to save Lake Erie.
But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good in this case. Ohio’s farmers, its local governments, and university researchers need funding to pursue the practices that can help reduce pollution. The General Assembly should move quickly on The Clean Lake 2020 Plan and the $1 billion bond initiative. Lake Erie does not have time to spare.
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