Wednesday, Feb 22, 2017
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Michigan declares western Lake Erie waters impaired

Michigan today designated its portion of the western Lake Erie watershed as impaired, a move that a large contingent of public officials and environmentalists from across the Great Lakes basin hope will convince the Kasich administration to do the same in Ohio.

The Kasich administration has thus far resisted calls for the impairment status, as has the city of Toledo.

Although the designation is the state of Ohio’s call, both have asserted it is not necessary if state officials get more cooperation to control algae-forming runoff from Ohio’s powerful agricultural industry.

Gov. John Kasich and others, including his point man for Lake Erie issues at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Karl Gephardt, have said the administration fears such a designation could do more harm than good by sending out the wrong marketing and branding signals to would-be investors.

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks Hudson, citing information passed on to her by the Ohio EPA, has said she fears it could lead to higher sewage rates. The city, unlike its neighboring suburb of Oregon, has so far declined to support an impairment designation.

Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor reiterated the administration’s position at the Rotary Club of Toledo’s recent Lake Erie algae conference in Toledo. In an opinion piece her office submitted to The Blade, she acknowledged there are some disagreements over how Ohio can best do its part to protect the lake but said they usually are over “how fast, how much money, whose authority, [and] what are the best descriptors of lake condition and what force do those descriptors have in law.”

Ms. Taylor said “it is my obligation to assure that our Lake Erie remains the source of a clear cup of water on a toddler’s highchair; a stimulant to Ohio jobs, and a natural wonder of water, wetlands, and aquatic life.”

Later this afternoon, Ohio EPA spokesman Heidi Griesmer issued a statement defending the Kasich administration’s position, citing $2 billion of work in the Lake Erie watershed and $3.6 billion statewide since 2011.

She cited efforts to better control manure and synthetic farm fertilizers, improve sewage treatment, reduce open-lake disposal of dredged materials, improve monitoring, and expand university research.

“It is undeniable that a great deal of progress has been made in recent years to improve Lake Erie,” Ms. Griesmer said, asserting that Ohio “has made historic reforms to strengthen the protection of Lake Erie and reach agreements to achieve a recommended 40 percent reduction in phosphorus entering the lake.”

She noted that Ohio listed its Lake Erie shoreline and areas around drinking water intakes on the state’s list of impaired water bodies in 2015.

Critics have said that doesn’t go far enough.

A state-issued impairment status is more than symbolic: It is a necessary step in getting the U.S. EPA to establish a comprehensive inventory, regional strategy, and tougher controls. Supporters, including Lucas County commissioners and the city of Oregon, maintain such a regionwide program is essential to avoid another algae-induced Toledo water crisis like the one in August, 2014, when nearly 500,000 metro area city water customers were told to temporarily avoid their tap water.

Getting Ohio and Michigan to agree on an impairment status would put farms, sewage plants, golf courses, and other sources of algae-forming fertilizers on a so-called “pollution diet” on a case-by-case basis, meaning releases would be more individually targeted.

Lucas County commissioners responded to Michigan’s designation by calling upon the Kasich administration to do the same.

“Declaring the waters of Lake Erie impaired is supported by science and law,” Commissioner Carol Contrada said.

Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said Ohio’s role is important because the state is “Ground Zero for addressing the health of Lake Erie.”

“Locally, we have developed tools to identify the sources of nutrient pollution through the Nutrient Source Inventory, and it is time for the state of Ohio to act,” she said.

Commissioner Pete Gerken noted the County Commissioners Association of Ohio has endorsed recommendations consistent with Lucas County’s position.

“A basin-wide approach is necessary,” he said. “This is not a stand-alone effort. It is time to act.”

Ohio Rep. Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon), part of a local contingent of Democratic state legislators pushing for the impairment designation, likewise applauded Michigan’s decision.

“I urge Gov. Kasich to take note of [Gov.] Snyder’s decision and consider doing the same,” Mr. Sheehy said.

Also weighing in was Frank Szollosi of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, who works part-time for Lucas County as a climate-change consultant.

Mr. Szollosi, a former Toledo city councilman, said NWF strongly supports efforts to get both Governor Kasich and, subsequently, President Obama on board with an impairment designation.

“Today’s action needs to be a catalyst for the U.S. EPA and states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana to act with urgency to craft and implement a pollution-reduction plan that protects our waters from harmful algal blooms,” Mike Shriberg, NWF Great Lakes regional director, said. “The millions of people who depend on Lake Erie for their drinking water, jobs, and way of life are counting on public officials to get the job done.”

Ohio’s largest environmental group, the Ohio Environmental Council, called Michigan’s designation “a common sense step towards protecting Lake Erie.”

“Ohio should step up and do the right thing to address toxic algae,” Adam Rissien, OEC clean water director, said. “Michigan’s action shows that Ohio not only has an opportunity, but an obligation to do more to protect our Great Lake. Declaring all of Lake Erie impaired will bring additional resources and tools to stop toxic algae from continuing to threaten people's drinking water. We simply cannot afford to leave any tools on the table.”

Dan Eichinger, Michigan United Conservation Clubs executive director, said Michigan’s action “sets the stage for strong regional action that benefits people, communities and businesses, including the millions of men and women who fish, hunt and recreate in and around Lake Erie and surrounding habitat.”

“This is a big deal,” he said.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said today’s listing, issued at noon, further supports the need for the goals established by the Western Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement that was signed in June, 2015 by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and Ms. Taylor.

That agreement acknowledges the importance of nutrient reductions necessary to improve and protect Lake Erie’s water quality. It established the goal of a 40-percent reduction of total phosphorus loads to Lake Erie by 2025, with an interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020.

“This determination is the result of shoreline monitoring and cyanobacterial bloom analyses by satellite imagery of the west Lake Erie Basin,” C. Heidi Grether, MDEQ director, said. “The failure of the WLEB to meet Michigan’s water quality standards triggers the impaired waters reporting requirement under the Clean Water Act.”

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Michigan Department of Natural Resources are actively working alongside the MDEQ to address the algae blooms and nutrient loading to the WLEB. Plans under development from the three state agencies will be merged into a draft Domestic Action Plan as part of the Annex 4 process, the state DEQ said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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