With the decision by Michigan to declare all its open waters in western Lake Erie impaired, the Toledo Rotary Club’s recent Lake Erie Conference takes on added significance.
It was well-organized and well-attended like last year’s. But with due respect to the Rotary and its good works, it fell short, perhaps because it was based on the hopeful premise of “taking the politics out … and just doing the right thing.”
The battle for Lake Erie is all political. “Taking the politics out” usually means avoiding challenging discussions needed to get to the truth.
With Lake Erie, the next crisis is just a summertime bad weather event away — as keynote speaker, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor almost blurted until she realized “reporters might be in the room.” She quickly fixed that faux pas but dutifully echoed her boss’ line that declaring western Lake Erie impaired would be “only symbolic, harmful to the economy, and no more effective than our current measures,” even though that is exactly how a serious cleanup in the Chesapeake Bay began after decades of failed, voluntary agreements.
Those “current measures” were energetically defended by:
■ Karl Gebhardt, head of Lake Erie policy for the Ohio EPA, former 19-year lobbyist for the Ohio Farm Bureau, and lobbyist for Vreba-Hoff Dairies, an early concentrated animal feeding operations in northwest Ohio. At last year’s conference, he opposed an impaired designation because it would cause negative publicity for Lake Erie. Someone needs to tell Mr. Gebhardt the “bad mark” is already there, large and green in NASA satellite photos.
■ Brandon Kern, director of policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, repeatedly warned that further manure regulations would “stifle farmers’ innovation” to reduce phosphorus pollution.
■ Kevin Elder, chief of livestock permitting for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, whose unit never met an application it didn’t like, including one this summer adding 2.2 million chickens to the Maumee watershed. He assured us that “We have a large cropland base for applying manure.”
■ Mike Libben, from the Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District, whose testimony for the status quo was best summed up by two images in his slide show: one of a horse pulling an antique manure spreader and another of a modern “manure barn” he assured us was to hold manure until it can be applied by the voluntary “4 Rs” — right fertilizer, right rate, right time, and right place.
However, the vast majority of manure isn’t stored in neat “manure barns” or applied by horse-drawn wagon. It’s held in enormous, open cesspools, pumped into tanker trucks and spread in heavy, reeking torrents onto any agreeable land owner’s property — to the lasting detriment of rural life and farm families who’ve been on the land for generations.
It was left to one attendee to point out a very large elephant sitting squarely in the middle of the gathering: there are some 13 million animals held in just the 147 CAFOs in the watershed that generate feces and urine comparable to the combined sewage of Chicago and Los Angeles every year.
I’m willing to bet that most of the attendees returned home feeling vaguely good because they had done something for Lake Erie, but also somewhat dazed and confused after a hike deep into the weeds of minutia and irrelevant tangents, with little feeling of “taking action” promised for investing a day and $85.
Indeed, in the promotional video for the conference, past Toledo Rotary president Andy Stuart described the lake’s problems as “tied up in a Gordian knot of money and politics.”
I must respectfully disagree.
Lake Erie’s problems are not a Gordian knot. There is central leadership. It’s just that it’s provided by the same parties responsible for causing the problem while their agents in government do everything possible to limit us to the same “voluntary agreements” that cursed Chesapeake Bay to more than 20 years of failed efforts.
Two years ago, the Toledo Rotary took up the challenge to adopt Lake Erie like the International Rotary adopted the eradication of polio. Cleaning up Lake Erie simply must happen and it will, ideally with the Rotary’s help, as long as root causes are honestly addressed. But it must begin with a discussion based in reality and not intimidated by the status quo.
Mike Ferner is a former Toledo councilman and the founder of the environmental activist group Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie.