Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Tom Henry

Will plague of toxic algae accelerate a focus on Lake Erie?

Western Lake Erie is on fire -- metaphorically speaking.

At a recent University of Toledo College of Law workshop, speakers implored Michigan and Ohio residents to see the emerging parallels between western Lake Erie's record algae outbreaks in 2010 and 2011 and Cleveland's 1969 Cuyahoga River fire.

Their point: Sometimes it takes a major embarrassment to galvanize a region.

Public outrage over algae is finally getting through to the right people, but meaningful action has been a long time coming. The degree of commitment has yet to be seen, especially as the two states attempt to promote a more business-friendly atmosphere.

Western Lake Erie needs to become a stronger focal point for fertilizer runoff control, just as Cleveland was the focal point for better sewage treatment after the Cuyahoga caught fire. Cleveland lived with the embarrassment of being called the "mistake on the lake" for years.

But that sacrifice in public relations made the city a powerful symbol of the need to pass America's landmark Clean Water Act and a new U.S.-Canada agreement to restore the Great Lakes. These two acts in 1972 ushered in the modern era of sewage treatment.

The most prevalent form of western Lake Erie's toxic algae, microcystis, has appeared annually since 1995. But not until 2010 did the Ohio Department of Health begin regular tests for it near Lake Erie beaches.

In parts of Lake Erie last summer, the concentration of the toxin that makes microcystis deadly was found to be 1,200 times greater than limits for drinking water recommended by the World Health Organization. It was 600 times greater than what the United Nations agency considers the threshold for safe recreation, according to Ohio Sea Grant Director Jeff Reutter.

No wonder charter fishing boat captains and major businesses such as Cedar Point are urging more action.

At the UT workshop, Steve Davis, a U.S. Department of Agriculture watershed specialist who speaks for the farming community, drew parallels between western Lake Erie's algae and the Cuyahoga fire. So did Bill Fischbein, supervising attorney for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's water programs, who said the algae issue has put the state "at a crisis."

More than $10 billion of Ohio's $38 billion annual tourism revenue is generated in counties along the Lake Erie shoreline. Gov. John Kasich's office appears to recognize the need to control phosphorus inputs in the lake.

But action can't wait. Conditions look ripe for another major algae outbreak this year, given the region's unusually mild winter, heavy rainfall, and record heat in March.

A recent NASA satellite photograph shows a huge swath of loose, phosphorus-laden sediment swirling around western Lake Erie.

Mr. Kasich and state lawmakers could start by considering the recommendations of a white paper produced by UT's law school.

Lead author Ken Kilbert, an associate professor in the law school and director of its Legal Institute of the Great Lakes, said the state should declare at least the Maumee River -- but preferably the entire Lake Erie watershed -- a distressed region. That would provide legal ammunition to impose temporary measures on agriculture, such as restricting manure applications on land during winter.

Regulations that affect factory farms could be expanded to more categories of agriculture, he added.

Other recommendations include a cap-and-trade program that would give permit holders the flexibility of buying and selling pollution credits for nutrient releases. Similar incentive programs have helped industry reduce air pollution.

The paper also calls for the removal of phosphorus from lawn fertilizers (some manufacturers have done that voluntarily), and for reductions in open-lake disposal of silt dredged from Toledo's shipping channel.

Mr. Reutter, who heads Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, said agricultural practices may need to change dramatically enough to achieve a two-thirds reduction in farm runoff.

But even that won't solve the problem, he said. That's how big and diverse the algae menace has become in Lake Erie, especially as the climate warms.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

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