Algae floats in Lake Erie at Maumee Bay State Park in August 2014 after toxic algal blooms in western Lake Erie forced a temporary closure of Toledo’s water treatment plant for more than two days, impacting drinking water for nearly half a million people in the western Lake Erie basin. (Aaron P. Bernstein, Getty Images, File, 2014)
Ask any Ohioan who has eyes and a nose: Lake Erie’s toxic algal pollution is a threat to the lake. It’s a threat to the health of the millions of Ohioans whose drinking water comes from the lake and it’s a threat to the millions of dollars Ohio gets annually from fishing and other recreation in western Lake Erie.
None of that is a mystery. What is a mystery is the inaction and futility of state officials who stall rather than protect the lake.
That’s why, when the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission meets tomorrow, it faces a choice: to live up to its name, and uphold the public interest, or to stand by, indifferently, as eight tributaries to the Maumee River continue to pour tons of phosphorus into Lake Erie, feeding toxic algal blooms.
For months, the commission has shamefully stalled on its simple duty: to approve Gov. John Kasich’s July 11 order designating the watersheds of eight Maumee River tributaries as distressed. Those eight streams drain a combined watershed of about 2 million acres.
If the panel is true to its mission, rather than a captive of agribusiness lobbies, its members will approve Kasich’s order in the morning.
In the teeth of opposition from key Statehouse interests within his own party, Kasich is doing the right thing by Lake Erie and by all Ohioans in issuing the order and fighting to get it approved. In a dramatic move Oct. 19, Kasich fired his agriculture director, David T. Daniels, a member of his cabinet since 2012, after learning Daniels had privately opposed Kasich’s distressed-watersheds order rather than strive to win its approval by the Soil and Water Conservation Commission. (The Agriculture Department’s interim director is Tim Derickson, of Oxford, a former Ohio House member who has been the department’s assistant director.)
The fear-mongering among farmers over the distressed-watershed order doesn’t even make sense, given success of a similar approach to cleaning up the toxic algae that’s impaired Ohio’s largest inland lake, Grand Lake St Marys. That cleanup is being carried out in a highly collaborative way with agricultural interests. There’s no reason to think the Maumee watershed cleanup would be any different.
If downstate lawmakers are trying to stoke a stall until after Kasich leaves office in January, there’s a simple remedy: clear statements from the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor that they would pursue the impairment designation themselves.
Asked for their positions on Kasich’s order, a spokesman for Democrat Richard Cordray said Cordray agreed with the impaired-watershed designation and with Kasich “that action needs to be taken” and about the urgency of addressing Lake Erie’s toxic algal blooms. The campaign of Republican Mike DeWine did not immediately respond.
Approving Kasich’s order designating the eight watersheds as distressed would give the state more power to require compliance with agricultural runoff limits. The area to be regulated includes an estimated 7,000 farms, including megafarms and big livestock feeding operations.
According to the University of Michigan’s Water Center, “about 85 percent of the phosphorus entering Lake Erie from the Maumee River comes from farm fertilizers and manure.”
The Maumee’s watershed is the largest drainage basin in the Great Lakes, according to Ohio Department of Natural Resources data, with “more than 16,000 miles of drainage ditches and 3,942 miles of streams.” All those watercourses sluice agricultural runoff into Lake Erie.
The Ohio Environmental Council reported in 2017 that “64 [Concentrated Animal Feeding Facilities] in the western Lake Erie watershed produce 24 percent (215,098 tons) of all the solid manure and 42 percent (658,030,505 gallons) of all the liquid manure in the state of Ohio. These amounts are greater than the fecal waste produced daily by the entire metro areas of Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Cincinnati combined.” (Emphasis added.)
Despite those startling data, Kasich’s bid to protect the lake – to do what a governor is supposed to do, be the public-interest trustee of a resource belonging to all Ohioans – has met mulish resistance, and not just from agribusiness and farm chemical lobbyists.
If the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission fails to approve Kasich’s distressed-watershed order Thursday – or dilutes it, or further stalls it – the peril to Ohioans’ health is clear. So is the threat to the Lake Erie fishery and to the countless recreational opportunities that Lake Erie offers Ohioans: Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline is about 312 miles long – more than one-third of Erie’s overall 871-mile shoreline.
The public interest in a clean, healthy Lake Erie demands that the Soil and Water Conservation Commission do Thursday what it should have done in July – approve John Kasich’s order.
And DeWine needs to add his voice to the chorus pledging to support this action to protect Lake Erie.