Ohio legislators propose plan to speed up Lake Erie recovery

Oak Harbor, Ohio — At the Ottawa County Soil and Water Conservation District Lake Erie Forum, Sen. Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green) and State Rep. Steve Arndt (R-Port Clinton) announced conservation initiatives and legislative action that they hope will speed up the recovery of Lake Erie by reducing nutrient loading amounts.

They introduced their Clean Lake 2020 Plan, which would provide up to $100 million per year for five years for algae reduction and best agricultural practices. Gardner had previously proposed a 10-year, $1 billion plan that failed to gain traction in Columbus.

According to a press release from Gardner’s office, “Funding may include establishing facilities to improve manure application processes, projects to reduce open lake disposal of dredged materials, funds to local governments for water quality-based green infrastructure, water management projects to help reduce nutrient and sediment run-off impacting the lake, and other strategies.”

Farmers are often guilty of plowing and planting right to the edge of ditches and streams, which allows bare soil and attached nutrients to erode into the Lake Erie watershed. However, leaving them unplanted without compensation or tax credit diminishes their potential income.

Also unveiled was a new Soil and Water Support Fund that will “assist farmers in soil testing, nutrient management plans, installing edge of field drainage devices, encouraging inserting of nutrients (subsurface placement), and agree(ing) to conservation methods that may include riparian buffers, filter strips and cover crops.”

The legislators each acknowledged the $3 billion investment that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has already made toward assisting area water treatment plants being able to treat for algae since the 2014 harmful algal bloom that caused nearly 500,000 Toledo area water customers to avoid drinking or contact with their tap water.

Millions of dollars of collaborative university research projects have been funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education and coordinated by the Ohio Sea Grant Program at Stone Laboratory in Put-in-Bay.

Expanded stream monitoring by Heidelberg University has allowed better documentation of the sources of nutrient inputs and coordination with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to predict upcoming summer algal bloom size. Non-point sources, primarily from agricultural operations, have been determined to be responsible for nearly 90 percent of the nutrients entering the watershed.

“Ohio has made some progress, but we need to do more to accelerate that pace of progress so we can reach our commitment toward a cleaner lake,” Arndt said.

In a major about-face, Gov. John Kasich and Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler announced that they will propose that Ohio’s portion of western Lake Erie be designated as an “impaired watershed.”

This comes after years of trying to avoid the label, ostensibly to avoid the stigma of admitting that the water within the Western Basin of Lake Erie is impaired for drinking and recreational use.

The former Mayor of Toledo, Paula Hicks-Hudson, who had previously opposed the designation, called on the governor to join her in asking for impaired status after an embarrassing green slime blanketed the Maumee River in downtown during an annual high school rowing competition last fall.

Environmental groups, Lake Erie charter boat captains, some local elected officials, and others have lost confidence in the voluntary programs, especially after a record amount of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) covered the lake in 2015 and was followed by a significant bloom again last summer, the third-worst of the past 10 years.

Two years ago, a 40 percent reduction in nutrient loading by 2025 was agreed to by officials in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario, with an “aspirational goal” of a 20 percent nutrient reduction being reached by 2020.

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