Bihn cautiously optimistic by EPA’s plan for TMDL in Lake Erie

Kelly J. Kaczala

        This year, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is placing a high priority on Lake Erie’s Western Basin (from the Michigan/Ohio state line to the Marblehead Lighthouse) for impairments to recreation and drinking water due to harmful algae and microcystin.
        Ohio EPA had previously designated the Western Basin as impaired for these reasons in 2016 and 2018. As a result of the new high priority designation, the agency will develop a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Western Basin over the next two to three years.
        A TMDL is part of the Clean Water Act. It defines the maximum load (or amount) of pollution that a body of water can handle and still be considered healthy. It outlines a plan to restore good health to waters that are not meeting water quality goals. A TMDL identifies how much pollution exists and where it is coming from. It specifies the amount of pollution reduction needed to meet water quality goals, and recommends actions that will improve water quality.
        The Clean Water Act requires TMDLs for water bodies that are not meeting water quality goals, and are considered impaired.
Toxic water
        On Aug. 2, 2014, the City of Toledo issued a tap water ban for three days after a toxin, microcystin, was found in its water supply. A high level of microcystin, a toxin created by blue green algae, was detected in samples taken from the city’s water treatment plant in East Toledo.
        The plant draws its water from the Western Basin of Lake Erie, the 12th largest freshwater lake in the world.  The toxin, at high levels, can cause abnormal liver functions and other illnesses in humans and animals.
        At the time, it was widely believed that the algae was caused by farmers overfertilzing their fields with phosphorus and nitrogen, some of which drains into the lake.
        But last year, western Lake Erie experienced a severe harmful algal bloom in spite of the fact that there were less commercial fertilizer, phosphorus and nitrogen field applications. Many farmers did not plant their fields because of heavy rain in the spring.  The levels of phosphorus and nitrogen were the same as in previous years, causing environmentalists and scientists to wonder about other sources, such as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that may be contributing to the problem.
        A March 2019 report by the Environmental Working Group estimates that the number of CAFOs in the Maumee Watershed has increased by 126 percent between 2005 and 2018. The amount of manure has increased by 41 percent and the amount of phosphorous by 62 percent for the same time period.
        A TMDL will be able to identify where the phosphorus and nitrogen are coming from – farm fields, CAFOs, or other sources.
A tool
        Former Oregon Councilwoman Sandy Bihn, said she is pleased the Ohio EPA will develop a TMDL plan within the next two years.
        “It’s a tool in the tool chest to help solve the problems and have some accountability with it,” said Bihn, who has been pushing for a TMDL for years.
         “I wish they had done it years ago. We would have had needed information on the lake and done something with that information,” she added.
        “It’s an important part of the process to do. It’s necessary. This is a step forward. Obviously, they don’t have to wait two or three years to start a TMDL. They can do it now,” said Bihn, who is executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper program.      
        Bihn believes that CAFOs are the main culprit contributing to the toxic algal blooms in the lake.
        Last year, she sponsored a resolution at an Oregon City Council meeting calling for the Ohio Department of Agriculture to require two proposed CAFO permits to have a higher standard to treat and dispose of manure at these facilities.
        Any manure from these facilities that are land applied must meet the phosphorous standards that apply to commercial fertilizer.
        While improving best farming practices have led to a reduction in commercial fertilizer phosphorus applications in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, the increase in CAFO operations and direct manure applications have “kept us from recognizing the benefits of those changing practices,” states the resolution.
        “You don’t have to wait for the TMDL to reduce sources and to help the lake,” said Bihn. “That can be done now. They could quit permitting so many CAFOs in the Maumee watershed and allowing excessive amounts of phosphorus to be applied to the land. There are things they can be doing right now that they’re not doing. But the TMDL is a step in the right direction,” she said.
Economic impact
        The harmful algal blooms cost hundreds of millions of dollars and caused economic harm to the Lake Erie basin, including increased monitoring, treatment, capital costs for water treatment plants to deal with algae in the source water, decreased property values and a reduction in revenue generated by fishing and boating, and beach closures.
        In the 1980s, the meat and dairy industries changed from pasteurizing animals to confining animals in order to bring them closer to market.
        This change to large CAFOs significantly reduced the number of family farms raising livestock. More importantly, it radically changed the way manure has been disposed of, which puts the lake and bay at risk.
        The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Annex 4, identifies the Maumee Watershed as the most significant contributor of nutrients to western Lake Erie.
Lake Erie
        On a related matter, the Ohio Lake Erie Commission will provide updates on the Domestic Action Plan 2020, Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Plan 2020, and other Lake Erie Program updates at its next quarterly meeting on Wednesday, March 11 at 10 a.m. at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bay Shore Rd., in Oregon.
        The Domestic Action Plan 2020 is a plan to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie under the bi-national Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
        The Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Plan 2020 reflects actions that the Commission and its member agencies will take over the next several years to protect, preserve, and restore Lake Erie. The plan features a variety of topics affecting Lake Erie, including onpoint source pollution, invasive species, and tourism.
        All commission meetings are open to the public and include reports from the member state agencies, other commissioners, and advisory committees, followed by a public comment period.
        The Ohio Lake Erie Commission was established for the purpose of preserving Lake Erie’s natural resources, protecting the quality of its waters and ecosystem, and promoting economic development in the region. The director of the Ohio EPA serves at the commission’s chairman. Additional members include the directors of the state departments of Transportation, Health, Development Services, Agriculture, Natural Resources, and seven additional members of the public appointed by the governor.


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