-Dr. Seuss; The Lorax[/pullquote]
A thick, rolling green soup laps the shores of Lake Erie holding with it the putrid rot of decomposition. Its name is Cyanobacteria, more commonly referred to as algae blooms, and in 2011 it claimed over 20 percent of the lake’s surface; the largest recorded growth for the lake to date. Not only does this lead to an unpleasant scenery, Cyanobacteria produces Microcystin, a toxin which brings with it a bevy of side-effects including dizziness, nausea, vomiting, rashes, diarrhea, liver damage, and in extreme cases, death. The spreading reach of the toxin led to the drinking water ban in Toledo last year that lasted three days and affected over 400,000 people. The sheer numbers of the plant have led to a high yield of decomposition which in turn consumes large amounts of oxygen, creating dead zones that are uninhabitable for fish and other plants within the lake.
Unfortunately, environmental calamity is nothing new to our great lake. In the late 1960s the situation had deteriorated so severely that it was declared dead by numerous national publications like Time, which went to the lengths of running the lake’s obituary in their August ’69 issue while describing it as a “gigantic cesspool.”The pollution on the shores of Lake Erie was also the inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s cautionary children’s tale, The Lorax. (Consider that for a moment, our pollution is literally at Seussical levels.) Ohio’s lake front counties have since made significant strides to enhance the quality of the lake over the years, including the aggressive Clean Water Act of 1973; however the current rampant proliferation of algae blooms poses a very real and immediate threat to our largest, closest body of fresh drinking water- a threat that has only grown worse over the past few years.
In an article published earlier this year in Science magazine, researcher Johan Rockstrom claimed that humanity has passed four out of nine environmental boundaries that are making our planet uninhabitable. Chief among them is phosphorous and nitrogen containing bio-geochemical flows which contaminate water systems and aid in the growth of algae blooms. Coupled with an increasingly warm planet due to climate change, these blooms are seeing record increase. “For the first time in human history, we need to relate to the risk of destabilizing the entire planet,” Rockstrom contends. “We are at a point where we may see abrupt and irreversible changes due to climate change.”
Cyanobacteria thrive in warm climates. The shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie, has proven a fertile incubator for algae growth not only from the sunlight that can penetrate deep into the lake bed, but also from the diet that the bacteria consume. Phosphorous, a potent nutrient for the blooms, finds its way into the lake from sources such as industrial waste but, more to the problem at hand, through Ohio’s and neighboring states’ farmlands as well. Often referred to as “America’s breadbasket,” Ohio has a proud legacy of agriculture. With 61% of the phosphorous contaminating the lake coming from farm runoff, our legacy of cleaning up after ourselves is decidedly less noble. When farmlands are oversaturated, the water runoff mixes with the phosphorous heavy fertilizer in the soil. Together, the mix travels to the nearest regional water bed, in our case, from local riverbeds, then to the lake. The author of a U.S. National Academy of Sciences study entitled, “Record-setting Algal Bloom in Lake Erie,” contends that certain farmland practices including autumn fertilizer application, which tends to wash away after heavy seasonal rains, and fertilizer that is applied lightly to the surface rather than injected deep in the soil, both contribute significantly to the phosphorous runoff and subsequent production of algal blooms. The author of the report goes on to cite a 218% increase in dissolved phosphorous loadings between 1995 and 2011 from the Maumee River, which is the main tributary of the western basin of Lake Erie. An unfortunate contributing coincidence is the choice of crops grown. Corn demands thirty-six percent more fertilizer than other heavy nutrient-laden crops such as soybeans. Sparked by the demands from bio-diesel energy, corn production has increased 15 percent in Ohio since 2012 and has seen the highest national production since 1937, all of which are factors that have increased the growth of algal blooms.
Measures have been taken, if only incrementally and after negative consequences like the Toledo water ban. The U.S. Agriculture Department, funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, is awarding five million dollars to help farmers in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan to prevent further fertilizer runoff. “No one understands the importance of clean water like our farmers and producers,” Michigan Senator, Debbie Stabenow, said in a press release featured on her website. “That’s why this investment is so important. While this problem cannot be solved overnight, by taking proactive steps now to manage runoff, we can begin to help prevent future blooms in Lake Erie and other parts of the Great Lakes and its watersheds.” The three million that Ohio received will be used to plant cover crops to slow water runoff, add gypsum to soil, implement conservation tillage or no-till systems on crop fields, install agricultural drainage water management systems and implement nutrient management plans.
One of the more progressive actions taken by politicians has been in the form of a state Senate bill sponsored by Senators, Randy Gardner and Bob Peterson, called the Agricultural Pollution Abatement Program, or SB 1. While introducing the bill, Gardner was quoted by the Associated Press, “Saving Lake Erie requires a new sense of urgency equal to the value Lake Erie provides to Ohio and the nation.” The bill passed the state Senate in a unanimous vote before being signed into law by Governor Kasich earlier this year. The legislation prohibits the spreading of fertilizer and manure on frozen or saturated soil near or on the Western Lake Erie basin. This ban also applies to any twelve hour window where the chance for an inch of rainfall is more than fifty percent. The bill also bans the dumping of dredge material into the lake by 2020 and demands water treatment facilities to better monitor levels of potential phosphorous. Farmers in violation of said rules would be subject to a 10,000 dollar fine per offense. There appears to be very little push back from the agricultural community which acknowledges the vested interests we are concerned with as a singular community. A spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau offered their support of the measures in a statement, which read in part, “Clean water cannot come at the expense of food production nor can farming trump the need for clean water.”
The initial draft of SB1 included an emergency clause which would have brought the new measures into law the moment Governor John Kasich signed the bill rather than the usual ninety day holdover. However, the clause was removed from the final version of the bill. The expressed reasoning for removing the emergency clause was so that small farmers would have more time to acclimate to the changes before facing stiff financial penalties. Some, like Joe Logan, President of the Ohio Farmers Union, are disappointed to see the emergency clause while leaving in a sunset clause, which effectively strips the protective measures after five years. An amendment to remove this sunset provision failed to pass. Quoted in the Sandusky Register, Logan warned, “SB1 will not be a silver bullet to instantly solve Ohio’s water quality issues, but it will provide state agencies with more effective tools to work with farmers to end some of the most risky and least effective agricultural practices.” Senator Peterson, is apparently more optimistic. An outspoken and early supporter of the bill, Peterson lauded it within the same paper, exclaiming, “This is the toughest version of any bills we’ve seen.”
Within the half-decade window that it remains effective, the bill would be one of the more aggressive measures taken in combating a spreading disaster hat threatens not only Erie’s wildlife, but our access to fresh, non-contaminated drinking water. However, these changes will not take hold over night as few substantive changes do. So why then the dogged determination to include such a prohibitive time frame for turning the tide of an environmental crisis that has only been compounding for decades? Waiting until 2020 to halt the dumping of dredge material in the lake is equally baffling. SB1’s sunset clause is troubling if it is a signal that these measures are a mere pacifications rather than long term solutions.
This green plague will not abate overnight, let alone within one generation. The task of cleaning Ohio’s polluted waterways has always felt a Sisyphean task to local residents, but if there is light at the end of the tunnel it is that we now know the problem, its symptoms, its causes, and several effective measures to alleviate its spread. Knowledge is half the battle. We now stand on the threshold of that crucial second half of battle- decisive action. We must take what we’ve learned and implement proper fertilizer application practices. We must be aware what we flush down the drain. We have to keep pressure on politicians at all levels from council members to state senators, as well as Governor Kasich, to uphold the measures outlined in SB1 and similar legislation like House Bill 61 (which also focuses on water quality in and around the Lake’s agricultural regions), which also passed earlier this year. Ultimately, we must never settle for appeasement when our world is on the line.
SB1’s sunset clause was born out of fear by the very lawmakers who drafted the bill. Caught in a constant cycle of re-election bids and groveling for donors, politicians will affect change only so far as it doesn’t cause any undue waves to their job security. The short-armed, soft-soaped half-measures that made its way to the final version of SB1 are reflective of the feelings that its creators assume their constituents hold. It is our responsibility as American citizens in a representative democracy to help these lawmakers know our beliefs on the issue. Only when our passion for the environment is evident, only when we make our inalienable right for clean drinking water, and only when our determination to constantly make our community, and to larger extent, the world, a better place, will the lawmakers know for whom they are representing. I urge all of you reading this to place a call or send an email to your local representative to remind them that your vote should never be taken for granted and is owed solely to those interested in aiding our community becoming a better, cleaner place to live.