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Great Lakes conference discusses Lake Erie impairment

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    A packed house attends the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    Protestors rally for the impaired Great Lakes during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    Protestors, led by Mike Ferner, right, rally for the impaired Great Lakes during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    During the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    Protestors, led by Mike Ferner, right, rally for the impaired Great Lakes during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    Keynote speaker Patricia Morris, director of the Great Lakes Section, International Joint Commission in Windsor, Canada, speaks during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    Keynote speaker Patricia Morris, director of the Great Lakes Section, International Joint Commission in Windsor, Canada, speaks during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    Brian Barger speaks during the Trump Administration panel during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    From left: Wayne State University Prof. Noah Hall, Brian Barger and Jon Devine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington D.C.

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    Jon Devine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington D.C., speaks during the Trump Administration panel during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    University of Calgary Faculty of Law professor Martin Olszynski moderates the Trudeau Administration during the second panel of the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    University of Calgary Faculty of Law professor Martin Olszynski, left, and Tony Maas, Forum for Leadership on Water, are two of the panelists during the second panel of the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo. THE BLADE/LORI KING

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    University of Calgary Faculty of Law professor Martin Olszynski moderates the Trudeau Administration during the second panel of the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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    Tony Maas, Forum for Leadership on Water, speaks during the Trudeau Administration during the second panel of the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law in Toledo.

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One of the Kasich administration’s key players in the fight against algal blooms said Friday the future health of western Lake Erie is tied to the state’s commitment to do more aggressive edge-of-field research in each of the lake’s watersheds, not a federal Clean Water Act impairment designation that would subject farmers to more regulations.

Karl Gebhardt, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy director for water resources, told attendees of the University of Toledo College of Law’s 17th annual Great Lakes Water Conference a major research project underway by Ohio State University’s Kevin King “will be critical to finding out what's happening in each of the watersheds.”

“We will fix Lake Erie by fixing the watersheds,” Mr. Gebhardt, who also is Ohio Lake Erie Commission executive director and the man Gov. John Kasich has put in charge of Lake Erie programs, said.

Mr. Gebhardt was one of three speakers on the afternoon panel inside McQuade Law Auditorium. It focused on the impairment controversy.

He has come under fire by groups such as Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie for his many years as an agricultural industry lobbyist prior to joining the Kasich administration.

One of his fiercest critics has been ACLE’s founder, Mike Ferner, a former Toledo city councilman and two-time mayoral candidate who claims Mr. Gebhardt’s role with the administration helps explain why it is sticking to the industry’s wishes for more voluntary incentives to reduce algae-forming farm runoff instead of imposing tougher regulations through an impairment designation. Mr. Ferner’s group had about a dozen members demonstrating outside the law school auditorium before the conference began, and he handed out flyers mocking Mr. Gebhardt before his presentation.

But during his talk, Mr. Gebhardt said he wants Ohio to revitalize its Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, also known as CREP, which has lain dormant for several years. It provides incentives to farmers to create buffer strips that reduce runoff.

More importantly, though, he wants more information about whether better farming practices the state has been promoting are actually yielding the results it wants.

Several people attending the conference questioned if they are now that this summer’s algal bloom appears likely to go down as the third largest since 2002.

Mr. King’s edge-of-field research project attempts to quantify how many nutrients are leaving each of about three dozen test sites around the state. One of the preliminary results that has surprised scientists, announced months ago, is that far more phosphorus is escaping fields through underground farm tiles than surface runoff.

The state also wants to make more grants and low-interest loans available to communities such as Toledo that are reducing combined sewer overflows and modernizing their water-treatment facilities, Mr. Gebhardt said. 

“We want to get money out into the communties,” he said.

He also said it is continuing to make plans for rebuilding more wetlands, and is working with Columbus-based Batelle - one of the world’s top research and development corporations - on more innovative technologies that might be used to combat algae in the future.

“We're not going to get rid of algae in Lake Erie,” Mr. Gebhardt said. “And we want to keep the good algae in Lake Erie, because that's what makes it the walleye capital of the world.”

He and the other two panel speakers, including Madeline Fleisher, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney now working for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, agreed there’s no guarantee an impairment designation will bring more federal money - only the hope it might. ELPC has sued the U.S. EPA in federal court over the impairment issue, with Mr. Ferner’s group a partner in that litigation.

Mr. Gebhardt, in fact, said he believes the U.S. EPA has “been generous” with money it has provided to Ohio fighting algal blooms.

“I don't think it's a matter of not having enough money,” he said. “Sure, you’d always like to have more. It's a matter of what we're doing with it [and] if programs are working.”

Michigan declared its much smaller portion of western Lake Erie impaired a year ago this month, a move that proponents hoped would inspire Governor Kasich to do likewise in Ohio.

Kevin Goodwin, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality senior aquatic biologist who spoke on the panel, said that while there’s been no influx of federal dollars the impairment designation there raised the profile of the problem within state government and likely helped generate more funding at the state level.

“The mere impairment listing within the state already elevates it [within the state] for more funding,” Mr. Goodwin said. “It starts internal wheels moving.”

Ms. Fleisher said the lawsuit filed against the U.S. EPA pertains to the agency’s obligations under the federal Clean Water Act’s “rule of law.”

“Any administration, regardless of its politics, is supposed to follow the rule of law,” she said.

One person in the audience, ACLE member Sam Wright, of West Toledo, drew applause when he suggested a moratorium on industrial-sized livestock facilities known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

“We keep issuing permits,” Mr. Wright said, citing their large volumes of manure. “We know there's a problem. Why don't we put a hold on them until we have solutions?”

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

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