Shared from the 3/25/2018 Sandusky Register eEdition

Lake Erie solution proposed


Provided photo/OHIO EPA

The area in green in this Ohio EPA map, W2, is the area of the Western Basin that the agency is declaring impaired.


Ohio needs new regulations on farming practices in portions of the Lake Erie watershed to deal with the harmful algal bloom problem, the Ohio EPA’s director said.

A proposed new state law giving Ohio more power to regulate farms will be introduced soon, Ohio EPA director Craig Butler said during an interview Friday at the Register.

The proposal comes in the wake of the Ohio EPA reporting, for the first time, that the open waters of Lake Erie’s Western Basin are “impaired.” The declaration was welcomed by environmentalists.

Butler, accompanied by Karl Gebhardt, executive director of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, and other state officials, said state Rep. Steve Arndt, R-Port Clinton, will author the Ohio EPA bill.

A key provision of the bill will be to expand the definition of “agricultural pollution” in state law to include fertilizer.

The change would allow the state to require farmers in areas defined as “watersheds in distress” to submit nutrient management plans for how they use fertilizer on their land. The Ohio Department of Agriculture would have the job of defining where such watersheds are located.

Butler stressed the mandatory new rules for nutrient management plans won’t apply to all farmers in Ohio or the Lake Erie watershed, or even all farmers with land that drains into the Western Basin. The rules will only apply to watersheds in distress.

But he said the proposal is likely to be opposed by at least some farmers and said Arndt will have plenty of work to get the bill passed.

“He’s bucking some serious headwind,” Butler said.

Arndt told the Register Friday he’s scheduling meetings over the next few weeks with farm officials to explain what the bill is trying to accomplish. Arndt also stressed that the new mandates only would apply to specific areas.

“This is not a broad brush. It is a very targeted attempt,” he said.

Butler and Gebhardt said the model for what is being attempted for Lake Erie is a program imposed on the watershed that drains into Grand Lake St. Marys in Mercer and Auglaize counties.

The lake has severe toxic algae blooms. In response, the state made every farm that drains into the lake come up with a nutrient management plan.

Most farmers accepted the new rules, but some had to be ordered to do the plans, Gebhardt said. The orders convinced almost all of the remaining Grand Lake farmers to go along, although one farmer had to be taken to court, Gebhardt said.

Grand Lake still has problems, but “you are starting to see a significant reduction in the number of nutrients,” Gebhardt said.

Ohio has signed an agreement with Michigan and Ontario to reduce phosphorus getting into the lake by 40 percent by 2025. Farm runoff is considered the main source of phosphorus in the lake.

Butler said he hopes Arndt’s bill will pass by the end of the year. But because of its urgency, the Department of Agriculture will take the unusual step of writing rules to carry it out before it becomes law, Butler said.

Butler said the bill will have another major provision dealing with phosphorus. All wastewater treatment plants in Ohio will be required to reduce phosphorus discharges to 1 part per million, Butler said.

“Most of our plants have the technical ability to do this now,” Butler said.

The Ohio EPA also spends $300,000 to $400,000 a year giving health departments, such as Erie County’s, money to help homeowners fix septic tank systems that are leaking dirty water into the ground.

Butler said in the interest of fairness and being comprehensive it’s important to address all the ways that phosphorus gets into the lake.

But he said studies show so-called “non-point pollution” mostly from farms account for 90 percent of the phosphorus in Lake Erie, with septic tanks accounting for only 2 percent, and wastewater treatment plans in the middle of those two.

The Ohio EPA released a draft 2018 water quality report Thursday. For the first time, the report said the waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie are “impaired.” Butler said he expects the U.S. EPA to accept that designation.

“We are pleased that Gov. Kasich is now stepping up to recognize Western Lake Erie is impaired by pollution,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. The center had filed a lawsuit in federal court to force a declaration Lake Erie is impaired.

Butler said the impaired decision does little to help the lake because normally such a designation begins a study that can take years. Lake Erie can’t wait, and in any case, it’s already known what needs to be done, Butler said.

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