The pollution of Lake Erie continues to be a stain on the administration of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
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Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to address Lake Erie’s toxic algae crisis includes necessary resources to address the pollution that is fouling the lake, but it is not sufficient to get the job done.
The governor says he is frustrated by inaction in the General Assembly and resolute despite resistance from his own Soil and Water Conservation Commission over his plan to designate eight watersheds or portions of watersheds in the Maumee River basin with high levels of the algae-feeding phosphorous as “distressed.”
The “distressed” designation — should the governor prevail — would trigger new rules for agriculture, which is the source of a large majority of the nutrients flowing from the Maumee into the lake, where they fuel toxic algae blooms every summer. The rules will affect everything from the storage and handling of agricultural nutrient sources to practices aimed at preventing erosion from farm fields into waterways.
The governor also has signed a bill sponsored by state Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) that will provide $36 million to help address the algae problem, including some money to help farmers buy equipment and take other steps to reduce fertilizer runoff.
All of this sounds good, except the governor’s plan does not have any teeth. Farmers who continue to pollute can face civil penalties under this plan. That is a far cry from the enforcement that is going to be necessary to save the lake.
For evidence that voluntary measures — no matter how well funded — are not going to be enough to save the lake, Mr. Kasich does not need to look any further than his own administration’s science.
For years, the Kasich administration insisted that voluntary measures were all that were required to reduce pollution killing the lake. But in April, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency released a report that shows that for the last five years, voluntary efforts to reduce the pollution flowing into the Maumee River have had no measurable effect.
The prospect of reaching the goal of reducing the phosphorus runoff 20 percent by 2020 and 40 percent by 2025 is nil. We have made no progress toward that.
As authorities learned with the now-successful Chesapeake Bay cleanup, pollution levels do not begin to fall until there are specific and strictly enforced limits on them. This can only come after Ohio commissions a pollution inventory to track exactly where the algae-feeding phosphorus is coming from and then sets total daily maximum loads for the nutrients.
Federal Judge James Carr, who is presiding over the lawsuit seeking to force better enforcement of environmental laws in the Lake Erie case, has ordered state and federal authorities to give him an update on progress next month. Observers believe the judge may order a detailed pollution study and/or set limits himself if he is not pleased with that update.
The Department of Justice has filed a motion arguing that the judge has no authority to create those limits, setting the stage for a potential legal showdown.
Meanwhile, algae has been spotted forming already on Lake Erie this year, even earlier than it appeared last summer. We are no closer to eliminating the threat algae poses to Ohio’s $14 billion a year tourism industry, to the drinking water for Toledo’s 500,000 water customers, or to the economic development and quality of life in northwest Ohio.
Ohio desperately needs a pollution diet. As any dieter knows, cutting calories means getting real about how many you’re eating and where they’re coming from. And willpower often is not enough to guarantee you can stick to a diet.
Governor Kasich must understand that his work is not done. Condemning Lake Erie to remain polluted for years to come would be a terrible legacy. The governor must take the inevitable — though politically tough — next step and proceed toward real pollution limits that will save the lake.
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