Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Saving Lake Erie

A new Lucas County report offers a solid plan for reducing toxic algae blooms; now it needs action

A new state law offers a good start — but no more than that — on cleansing Lake Erie of harmful algae. State, federal, local, and regional officials, as well as environmental, scientific, farm, and industry groups, now must build on the law to help prevent a recurrence of the kind of toxic pollution that poisoned Toledo’s water supply last summer.

A report solicited by Lucas County’s board of commissioners and produced by law professors at the University of Toledo and University of Vermont offers a useful series of legal solutions to address the lake’s algae mess. It acknowledges that the problem affects several states and Canada, and that Ohio cannot solve it alone. But our state can, and should, take the lead in restoring Lake Erie to good health.

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The new report sensibly concludes that solely voluntary efforts will not clean up Lake Erie; legal mandates with enforcement teeth are necessary. It calls for the designation of the Maumee River watershed as distressed, to permit tougher regulation in the lake’s western basin. It also recommends better data collection to monitor both the extent of pollution in the broader Lake Erie watershed and the success of measures to reduce it.

The study proposes a regional compact among Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana to clean up Lake Erie, modeled after a successful strategy used to reduce pollution in Chesapeake Bay under an executive order issued by President Obama. As with the Chesapeake plan, such an initiative in this region also would require the active participation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio “is doing what it can within the state’s borders,” UT law professor Kenneth Kilbert, the director of the Legal Institute of the Great Lakes and a co-author of the report, told The Blade’s editorial page. “But it’s a multistate problem, and it has to involve federal agencies too.”

As previous studies have done, the report calls on the General Assembly and state regulatory agencies to take stronger measures to cut by 40 percent the level of phosphorous pollution of Lake Erie from Ohio sources. Such pollution feeds toxic algae; more than two-thirds of it is caused by runoff of fertilizer and manure from farm fields into waterways.

The new state law will begin the process of curbing agricultural runoff by limiting winter applications of manure and fertilizer. But as the report notes, the state needs to do more to regulate the factory farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations, which are major generators of manure.

The study calls for greater controls on the use of commercial fertilizers, on lawns as well as farms. It seeks stricter regulation of discharges into Lake Erie by large municipal sewage treatment plants and storm-water systems.

The report also proposes stricter enforcement measures against homeowners whose sewage treatment systems are major pollution sources. Such proposals counteract the complaint that farmers are expected to bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for cleaning up the lake.

Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada said she and her board colleagues will use the report as the basis of public hearings and meetings with elected officials, aimed at producing a plan for carrying out its recommendations.

Ms. Contrada correctly identifies maintaining the quality of Lake Erie — the source of drinking water for more than 3 million Ohioans, as well as an indispensable economic asset — as this region’s greatest environmental challenge. The new report provides a useful plan to help meet that challenge; now it requires purposeful action.

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