President Trump’s plan to gut federal spending for Great Lakes programs drew an overflow crowd to the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center on Thursday night for one of six meetings the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission is holding across the Great Lakes basin to discuss the region’s environmental challenges.
The crowd — calm, yet sometimes feisty — was described as a record turnout for the center along the Lake Erie shore at 6200 Bay Shore Rd., near Maumee Bay State Park.
Members of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie protest outside the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center.
About 140 people sat shoulder-to-shoulder inside a classroom that comfortably holds about 30, with another 30 or so sitting or standing in the hallway outside. Latecomers who couldn’t get seats included Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and state Rep. Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon), while representatives for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), and U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) observed from inside the classroom.
The IJC is a binational commission created by the United States and Canada in 1909 to help the two nations resolve common Great Lakes and other boundary-water issues. Its meetings were scheduled between Montreal and Duluth, Minn., long before Mr. Trump advanced plans for massive environmental-program cuts to help fund a buildup of the U.S. military.
His plan calls for a 30 percent reduction in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency budget, including the elimination of the agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that has brought $2 billion more to the region for cleanup and research since 2010. It also would end funding to agencies that support research of Lake Erie algae and climate change, most notably the Ohio Sea Grant program that is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Chris Winslow, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory director, told the crowd that would mean about $1.8 million less to fund more than 50 Lake Erie projects. About $2 million comes from Ohio State University, with support from several other universities, and another $2 million from the Ohio Department of Higher Education, he said.
People listen to speakers at the International Joint Commission meeting about proposed cuts to the Lake Erie budget.
Such projects range from aerial Lake Erie algae surveillance with NASA to scientists developing more efficient filters to remove algal toxins, Mr. Winslow said.
“We’re giving water treatment plant operators the information they need to remove those toxins,” he said.
Several people associated with Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie used the event to promote stronger rules for concentrated animal feeding operations at farms. But even several not affiliated with that group agreed the general impact of spreading manure on fields appears to have been widely underestimated and misunderstood.
ACLE founder Mike Ferner, a former Toledo city councilman and two-time mayoral candidate, called out Karl Gebhardt, a longtime agriculture industry lobbyist the Kasich administration has running the state’s Lake Erie programs as a deputy Ohio EPA director and chief of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, the state’s top policy body for the lake.
Mr. Ferner told the audience he wanted Mr. Gebhardt to commit that night to passing a state law that would limit crop farmers from spreading more manure than commercial fertilizer. He said he wanted Mr. Gebhardt to use his skills “as a 19-year lobbyist for the Ohio Farm Bureau to move that through the legislature” — a challenge to which Mr. Gebhardt refused to respond.
One of Mr. Ferner’s group members, Tahree Lane, later told the audience it should get behind that plan, as well as meaningful reductions in manure spreading.
One thing that has changed for Lake Erie over the past 50 years is that Ohio “welcomed lots and lots of industrial animal farms,” Ms. Lane said.
She and others said voluntary incentives to reduce runoff from the agricultural sector aren’t working.
Dave Housholder, a Wood County crop farmer, said he too has grown weary of CAFOs. He claimed they have been downsizing manure estimates to make their numbers look better, and that state agriculture officials who issue permits are all too willing to look the other way.
“I’m here to say I don’t think the lake’s going to get better,” Mr. Housholder said. “Until you clean up the ODA [Ohio Department of Agriculture] and hold people in charge accountable, you’re not going to clean [the lake] up.”
“You migrate to where the regulations are lax,” Mr. Housholder said. “Ohio is the go-to state for these facilities.”
Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeepers founder and executive director of the Lake Erie Foundation, was one of the few people who spoke about the actual IJC report, which gave the commission’s first update on the Great Lakes in three years.
She said it doesn’t give enough lake-by-lake data.
“We want measurements. We want to see if we’re making progress. We want to see definitive numbers,” Ms. Bihn said.
Other people talked about anything from the loss of amphibians to concerns they have about nuclear power.
Edward Goss, who said he is a retired auto-industry official but would not identify his former employer, said during his time the industry spent $10 billion over 10 years to improve paint departments.
He said big investments need to be made in Lake Erie.
“It costs money. The regulations were there,” Mr. Goss said. “You need regulations. There should be criminal prosecution for contaminating your air, your water, your source of life.”
Liz Uhlik of Monclova Township said she attended with her teenage daughter to learn more about the lakes because she’s concerned what they’ll be like for her in the future.
“I grew up on a farm. It seems like all of our frogs are gone now. Our bees are gone. Our kids are going to know what we did here,” Ms. Uhlik said. “I urge everybody to make this an area of political concern. I feel all of the areas are in peril now because of the political climate.”