Much more needs to be done to save Lake Erie

The Press Staff

        Five years after Toledo issued a drinking water ban due to microcystin, a toxin detected in the water supply, The Press has examined whether we are winning the battle to save Lake Erie.
        There has been some progress with technological advances installed in the water treatment plants of Oregon and Toledo to prevent another water crisis. Oregon’s water treatment plant has had ozone treatment for the last two years. Toledo is currently undergoing ozone treatment as well. Ozone treatment of water destroys microcystin. Its use essentially prevents another drinking water ban in the future.
        Combined sewer overflows, which also contribute to harmful algal blooms (HABs) developing in the lake, are also being addressed. The Toledo Waterways Initiative, a multi-million dollar project to upgrade the sewer system and prevent raw sewage runoff from getting into the lake, is nearly complete. Storage tanks, one built in Northwood, and one planned in Downtown Toledo, will also slow down drainage going into the lake following heavy rains.
        Wetlands are being installed at the downstream end of drainage systems to slow down the flow of phosphorus and nutrients, which feed the development of HABs as they are discharged into the lake.
        Despite all of those measures, there has been no change in the amount of phosphorus and nutrients going down the Maumee River as it empties into the lake, creating the HABs that color the lake a bright green. Billions of dollars from the state and federal governments have been aimed at cleaning up the lake, but nothing has changed. Overfertilization of farm fields in the Maumee River watershed remains the main source of phosphorus and nutrients draining into the lake.
        We asked the experts what more needs to be done to improve the water quality of the lake and stave off the production of HABs.
Reducing flows
        “Because we know that the greatest contributor of nutrients to Lake Erie is from agricultural sources. We need to create a comprehensive system of policies and funding to ensure that agriculture succeeds in reducing nutrient flows to Lake Erie,” said Kari Gerwin, director of Water Quality Planning at the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (TMACOG).
         H2Ohio, which Gov. Mike DeWine introduced to protect Ohio’s water quality over the next 10 years, will provide funds to implement best management practices. Without a strong policy framework to direct these funds and require accountability on the part of farmers, Gerwin said she was not optimistic there will be any meaningful progress in reducing algal blooms.
       “A good place to start would be in removing the confidentiality surrounding agricultural nutrients so that we can track nutrients within our watershed and target funds to addressing the worst problem areas. An example of this would be in identifying the location of every commercial feeding operation (CFO), the amount of manure they generate and how that manure is managed. Right now, we don’t have a good understanding of the role manure plays in nutrient loading to Lake Erie and this would fill some of the knowledge gaps.”
        Likewise, when fertilizer is applied to a golf course or farm field, there should be a way to track the information, she added. “Currently, much of this information is protected as confidential. Understanding precisely where nutrients are coming from is an important first step in addressing HABs and we would be able to more efficiently target funds to address the issue.”
        Dr. Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg College, would like to see farmers apply phosphorus below the surface. The Center has been tracking phosphorus loads into the lake for over 40 years. It collects water samples from several monitoring stations at rivers and streams in the Maumee River watershed for analysis three times per day
        “If I had unlimited resources and wanted to have a clean lake and maintain our agricultural economy, I would like to see subsurface application of phosphorus,” said Johnson. Subsurface application consists of injecting phosphorus two to three inches into the soil compared to the current practice of broadcasting pellets on the surface.
        “From what we have gathered so far, most of these watersheds have a lot of clay soil. That means rainwater doesn’t soak into the soil as easily. It interacts most strongly with that top one inch of the soil profile. When we surface apply, we end up enriching just that top one inch. So we’re overexposing phosphorus to rainwater that can basically pull off the phosphorus and travel into a nearby ditch. So if we can get the phosphorus applied below the surface, it would reduce that risk for runoff by a substantial amount,” said Johnson.
        Oregon Public Service Director Paul Roman said he would like to see more farmers use valves to keep water from running off their fields so quickly after heavy rainfall.
        “Most of our farmers drain their fields with field tiles. The fear is that these tiles may drain these fields too quickly,” said Roman. “So a lot of farmers have started putting valves on their tiles so that, if there’s a drought, they can close those valves and retain the water. By doing so, they are actually slowing the discharge down. They’re letting their land absorb those nutrients so they’re not going straight out into the drainage system.”
        Environmental activists in Northwest Ohio are focusing their attention on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and the large amounts of manure they generate as a source of phosphorus making its way to the lake.
        A study by the Environmental Working Group noted the number of CAFOs in the Maumee River watershed increased from 545 in 2005 to 775 last year.
        The estimated number of animals also increased from nine million to 20.5 million. More animals mean more manure: an estimated 3.9 million tons per year in 2005 to 5.5 million tons in 2018. Consequently, the estimated annual tonnage of phosphorus also jumped, from 6.3 tons to 10.3 tons, according to the study.
        Sandy Bihn, executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper program, has been studying the lake for years. She raised the alarm about algae in the lake years before the Toledo water crisis. She said CAFOs are increasingly responsible for much of the phosphorus going into the Maumee River.
        She notes that nearly 50 percent of the farmers this year did not plant and fertilize their fields due to heavy rainfall in the spring.
        “We should see a reduction in the phosphorus in the river this summer as a result, but we’re not,” she said. “So we should be focusing on in increase in CAFOs in the Maumee watershed as contributing to the high levels of phosphorus.”
        Manure from CAFOs should be subject to the same rules as sewage treatment of human waste, she said.
        “CAFOs putting the manure in the Maumee watershed is not sustainable. The only answer to it is to treat the manure with the same requirements as human waste. It’s not right that the people have to treat their waste, and CAFOs can put all the manure on the ground and impact the waters as they are.”


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