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Ohio officials know how to stop Lake Erie from turning toxic, but no one will do it

Some environmentalists doubted this approach would be stringent enough to move the needle much, but agriculture groups were outraged. Top members of the Legislature told Kasich to drop it. The head of the agriculture agency opposed it, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Kasich fired him. Finally, an agency commission charged with deciding whether to declare the watersheds in distress tabled the measure despite hearing from scientists on the panel that phosphorus levels were not improving and public health required more action.

Adam Sharp, the Ohio Farm Bureau’s executive vice president, summed up the industry’s influence in a 2019 email to members about another Lake Erie battle: “We in agriculture may be small in number but, together with farmers, we are large in force.”

Karl Gebhardt, who ran the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Erie programs during the Kasich administration, watched the 2018 fight with frustration. Gebhardt is a former Ohio Farm Bureau lobbyist. But if voluntary approaches aren’t getting results, he said, “something else has to change.”

“It’s not fair for the farmers … that are doing the right thing, that are implementing the right programs, to have the knucklehead next to them saying, ‘Nah, I’m not going to do it,’” he said.

Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie sees Ohio’s EPA as exactly that sort of knucklehead. The agency wouldn’t declare the algae-choked western Lake Erie “impaired,” the first step in a Clean Water Act process that ends with an enforceable improvement plan, until the group and the Environmental Law & Policy Center sued. Then the Ohio agency signaled that it had no near-term plans to start the next step, setting phosphorus limits. The groups sued again — and this time, Lucas County, in which Toledo is located, joined in.

Toledo has shouldered millions of dollars in costs to keep cyanobacteria out of its drinking water. Jamie Smith Hopkins / Center for Public Integrity

The case, which like the previous lawsuit was brought against the U.S. EPA because it oversees states’ handling of Clean Water Act requirements, passed a key test in November when a federal judge declined to dismiss it. Ohio contends it is pursuing other measures to help Lake Erie, U.S. District Judge James G. Carr wrote in his order, but the state did not supply “a credible plan” to fix the problem.

Ohio’s EPA would not make anyone available for an interview. But in a statement, the agency wrote that while the region that drains into western Lake Erie does not have a phosphorus limit, dozens of small watersheds within the area do. Advocates believe a limit for the entire region would be more effective, though they expect they will have to dog regulators for follow-up action.

Deep into his presentation at the West Toledo YMCA last summer, Ferner said Ohio could take a lesson from the nutrient-overloaded Chesapeake Bay. Though the bay’s health is far from perfect, and agriculture nutrients remain a challenge, progress accelerated after the U.S. EPA agreed to impose limits, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says.

Lake Erie, on the other hand? The week Ferner gave his talk, its algae bloom had ballooned to nearly the size of Houston.

Blame it on the rain

Anthony Stateler zipped up the road in a mud-flecked utility terrain vehicle and turned into one of his family’s fields in McComb, Ohio. There, by a ditch, sat a white container full of specialized equipment. He’d just explained how it measures nutrients in the water leaving the field when it interrupted him, making a soft whirring sound. The pump was pulling a sample.

Stateler and his family raise 7,200 pigs at any given time. They use most of the manure to fertilize the corn, soybeans, and wheat they grow on about 920 acres, and they sell the rest to other farmers. Ask the Ohio Pork Council about nutrient runoff, and officials there will probably suggest you talk to the Statelers because of their relentless efforts to better understand and contain it.

They’re part of an experiment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Farm Bureau to test cutting-edge conservation practices that could improve Great Lakes water quality. In addition to the monitoring equipment, they’ve got a phosphorus removal pit with material that traps the nutrient. Water-management gates hold back rainwater, giving it a chance to soak into the soil rather than running out their underground drains and, eventually, into Lake Erie, about 45 miles northeast. They inject manure into the ground, too, which helps keep more nutrients in place.

Anthony Stateler checks on the phosphorus-tracking equipment at one of his family’s fields in McComb, Ohio. Jamie Smith Hopkins / Center for Public Integrity

But the Statelers don’t want these or other practices turned into requirements.

“We don’t have the science behind things yet to make it mandatory,” said Anthony’s father, Duane Stateler, who has been farming in the area for five decades. “And to try to mandate it doesn’t make any difference because [farmers don’t] have the money.”

The way Anthony Stateler sees it, the explanation for Lake Erie’s tipping from good to ill health is heavier rain washing farms’ nutrients away, not anything farmers are doing differently.

More rain, courtesy of climate change, does contribute to runoff problems — and financial trouble for farmers. Last year was especially bad: Extreme weather, the Ohio Department of Agriculture said in a suicide prevention campaign, brought at least some farms “the most devastating economic losses they have ever faced.” Drenchers that dump more than 2 inches in a 24-hour period are happening about 50 percent more often in the Great Lakes region these days than in 1960, said Reutter, the Lake Erie researcher.

But the lake’s increasing problems are also a matter of farm-management decisions, scientists and the state’s phosphorus task force report say. For instance: Northwest Ohio farmers use subsurface drains to keep their fields from getting soggy, and they’ve installed large numbers in recent decades, said Laura T. Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University. “That just helps drain water even faster,” she said.

Reutter said just two actions, both recommended by the state’s phosphorus task force nearly a decade ago, would help the lake a lot if all farms took them: Insert fertilizer into the ground and stop applying too much. The first involves pricey equipment. The second isn’t a major hurdle for farms using commercial fertilizer, but he said it’s “a real heavy lift for people putting on manure.” The analysis by Public Integrity and its partners shows only a small part of the problem because relatively few farms must send reports to the state or abide by limits, he said, and many are “applying way too much.”

Ohio’s inability to stem the flow of nutrients has costly consequences. To protect its residents from microcystins, cyanobacteria toxins that can sicken people, Toledo has spent $53 million on an under-construction ozone treatment system, $6.2 million for a powdered activated carbon system, and $800,000 a year on the extra carbon and other agents that remove the toxin. The city also pays for a buoy system that measures water quality, which officials rely on to adapt their water treatment as algae conditions change.

And that’s just one place. The city of Oregon, which like Toledo taps Lake Erie for its drinking water, has had to spend extra, too. Across the country, more and more water systems are grappling with the costs of nutrient pollution.

A map showing the locations of public water systems reporting algal blooms near intakes, 2017 to present

“We no longer have a drinking-water problem in this community,” Toledo’s mayor, Wade Kapszukiewicz, said in his office overlooking the Maumee River, which is full of farm runoff that dumps into the lake. “But that’s only true because of the incredible investment the taxpayers of Northwest Ohio have had to make.”

Toledo also spent $527 million over the last two decades to upgrade its sewage handling and reduce its own nutrient pollution. By Kapszukiewicz’s calculation, locals have paid twice over while the industry that’s sending most of the phosphorus to Lake Erie skates.

“It is a profound injustice that the citizens of Toledo have had to clean up a mess that other people have made,” he said.

Other ripple effects range from a sharp drop in business for western Lake Erie charter boat captains during key summer months to no-swimming warnings, which in 2019 stretched from the end of July through late August at a Lake Erie public beach near Toledo.

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