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Agency implores Kasich administration to declare western Lake Erie impaired

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

    The Blade/Lori King
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    Satellite photo of Lake Erie algae taken Sept. 26, 2017. NOAA CoastWatch image - Great Lakes Region.

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The federal agency that represents the U.S. State Department in Great Lakes policy discussions with Canada called upon the Kasich administration Tuesday to declare the open waters of western Lake Erie as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act.

The 108-year-old International Joint Commission claims progress to reduce harmful algal bloom nutrients has been “disappointingly slow” because of Gov. John Kasich’s decision to stick with voluntary incentives for better farm practices.

The IJC, formed in 1909 to help the United States and Canada mutually resolve issues affecting shared boundary waters from coast-to-coast, implored Ohio to take action as part of its First Triennial Assessment of Progress report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The landmark agreement between the two countries was originally signed by then-President Richard Nixon and then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in response to massive fouling of the lakes from industrial chemicals and poorly treated sewage discharges in 1972. That same year, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to set the United States on a new path domestically.

The two countries last updated the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 2012 to account for climate change and other issues that have become more prominent to scientists since the 1970s.

While the IJC documented some Great Lakes progress since that 2012 update, it said Ohio should set clear deadlines for agriculture to achieve intended objectives, and hold farmers accountable.

Lana Pollack, the IJC’s U.S. co-chair, said this August’s 66,000 fish kills in the western Lake Erie watershed from poorly timed manure spills near tributaries in Williams, Allen, and Hardin counties was an environmental “tragedy” that shows the status quo isn’t working.

“What does it mean when you see that kind of tragedy in the lakes? It means [voluntary incentives] are failing. It means the governments are failing. It means [elected officials] have to go beyond the lip service they are paying the public and do more than volunteer actions. [Farmers] need enforceable standards. It takes political will,” Ms. Pollack said.

IJC Canadian co-chair Gordon Walker agreed.

“The private sector can provide a lot of innovative solutions, but governments must provide deadlines and goals,” Mr. Walker said.

The IJC has no direct power over the states, though.

“We can provide good information and science,” Ms. Pollack said. “But at the end of the day, it's the public and its elected officials.”

She said it “will be interesting to see in the upcoming elections in 2018 if [water quality] is a subject of intense discussion.”

Since the 2014 Toledo water crisis, the Kasich administration has repeatedly said it believes it can achieve results faster and more cooperatively through voluntary incentives, stating its belief that an impairment status would lead to more heavy-handed regulations and court challenges that could impede progress.

Heidi Griesmer, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, added Tuesday that voluntary incentives are a cornerstone of a suite of practices, including some regulations, to “curb phosphorous as part of our long-term strategy to fix Lake Erie.”

“Some progress has been made, but more is needed,” she said.

She said the Kasich administration has proposed several more steps in the state’s domestic action plan recently submitted to U.S. EPA, a document that is to serve as a blueprint for reducing phosphorus loading from Ohio sources 40 percent by 2025. She also noted Ohio has already designated portions of Lake Erie’s western basin as impaired, mostly water near the shoreline and portions of some tributaries.

The western Lake Erie discussion was only part of a webinar the IJC had with Great Lakes reporters in releasing its triennial assessment.

Canada struggles with boil-water advisories in the Great Lakes region even more than the United States, prompting Ms. Pollack and Mr. Walker to underscore the need for a larger investment in sewage infrastructure on both sides of the border.

The IJC said it is recommending the U.S. and Canadian governments “set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes,” putting a special emphasis on combined sewer overflows.

Though it has nothing to do with harmful algal blooms, the lead-based Flint water crisis and the environmental injustice issues that have arisen from it “is a sign the governments have been underfunding the infrastructure,” Ms. Pollack said.

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

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