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Drinking-water crisis in city of Toledo leads to new initiatives in Ohio — and calls to do more

by Tim Anderson ~ September 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Millions of people rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water. But for a short time in early August, about 500,000 of those people — in the Ohio town of Toledo —were told not to use it due to an algae-related contamination. The problem of algal blooms is nothing new in western Lake Erie (the shallowest of the Great Lakes), but as Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes notes, the incident in Toledo still served as a wake-up call.
“I’m hoping this leads to states really stepping up and taking this as an opportunity to protect water quality in the Great Lakes,” says Brammeier, president and CEO of the alliance. “Because how are we going to build a ‘blue economy’ [for the Great Lakes region] with the national and international headlines we’ve seen around this?”
The immediate crisis in Toledo was short-lived, but questions remain about how Ohio and other Great Lakes states deal with a longer-term issue: limiting the amount of nutrients entering the Great Lakes system in order to prevent harmful algal blooms.
In the 1970s, policymakers faced similar challenges related to the rise of algal blooms; the agreed-upon solution was to target point sources of pollution — for example, stronger regulations governing wastewater treatment plants and factories and restrictions on the use of phosphorus in detergents.
These policy responses largely worked, and by the 1980s, harmful algal blooms had mostly disappeared.
But more recently, the problem has resurfaced due to a host of factors, including new agricultural practices, the spread of invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels, and changes in the climate that have led to warmer water temperatures.
“The one part we can control, at least over the short-term, is how much pollution we’re putting into the lake,” Brammeier says.
And this time around, much of the focus is on nonpoint sources of pollution from agriculture.
Even before the crisis in Toledo, Ohio legislators had passed a measure this year (SB 150) requiring farmers to be trained and certified before applying fertilizer to their land. That new requirement takes effect in 2017.
Immediately after the incident, Ohio Gov. John Kasich launched a $1.25 million grant program to help farmers implement practices that prevent nutrient runoff; those practices include the use of cover crops and installation of controlled drainage structures.
In a series of recommendations for state action, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and other groups are urging Ohio policymakers to do more. Their ideas include ending the agricultural practice of spreading manure on frozen or snow-covered ground and tightening the state’s rules on manure management.
Brammeier suggests that states take several steps to better protect the Great Lakes. First, establish water quality criteria that meet goals such as an elimination of harmful algal blooms. Next, use these criteria to set limits on how much phosphorus and other nutrients can enter a watershed. Finally, he says, spending on agricultural conservation should be tied to meeting the water quality criteria.