Ohio Law Intended to Protect Lake Erie From Toxic Algal Blooms; More Steps Needed

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By Matthew Berger

April 2 — Ohio took a major step April 2 toward addressing the toxic algal blooms that briefly poisoned the drinking water supplies of some cities last summer, but analysts said many more steps remain to protect Lake Erie water quality.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) signed into law legislation that would prohibit farmers from spreading manure on frozen or saturated agricultural fields and end the dumping of dredged sediment into Lake Erie within five years.

The measures are intended to reduce the amount of nutrients, particularly phosphorus, running off from fields and farms into the lake. Those nutrients can contribute to the growth of algae that, in extreme cases known as harmful algal blooms, can produce cyanotoxins, or blue-green algae.

Kasich signed the bill outside Toledo, Ohio, where the drinking water of 400,000 residents was contaminated by one of those toxins, microcystin LR, in August 2014. Lake Erie is the city’s main drinking water source.

Another Step Forward 

The law is the latest effort by Ohio to combat algal blooms and the public health effects they can cause.

The state has set “do not drink” and “do not use” thresholds for four cyanotoxins. Minnesota and Oregon are the only other states with drinking water thresholds for any cyanotoxins, though many states have thresholds indicating when to avoid recreational waterways, according to the EPA.

The state also passed a law in 2014 requiring farmers with 50 or more acres to attend a fertilizer certification training course that includes information on nutrient runoff, its effects on waterways and how to limit it .

“I believe Ohio is the first to pass an actual state law. Other states have rules of some sort or another, with varying levels of enforcement,” Adam Rissien, director of agricultural and water policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, told Bloomberg BNA. “This is another step forward.”

Timing Versus Amount 

The law was praised by water quality advocates, although they criticized it for only addressing the timing of fertilizer application rather than the amount of fertilizer applied.

“Until we have something in place that ensures growers don’t over-fertilize, we’ll still have runoff problems,” Rissien said.

He also expressed some concerns with exemptions in the new law for spreading manure around crops that are currently growing. That exemption could be seen as including winter cover crops, “which would defeat the whole purpose, though we don’t know how much of a concern that would be yet,” Rissien said.

Those concerns were echoed by Tom Curtis, deputy chief executive of the American Water Works Association.

“There’s a limit to how much of the nutrients from the manure the soil can absorb, so it’s not just a matter of timing,” Curtis said.

“It’s not clear yet whether this law will be enough to make a difference, but I applaud the effort and it will likely result in water quality improvements,” he added.

Next Steps 

Rissien noted that the potential for toxic algal blooms is primarily a problem in the western end of Lake Erie, a relatively shallow basin fed by waters from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.

Any significant action to combat the phosphorus runoff that is a major contributor to algal blooms would need to include multiple states and provinces, and they have been working together for years to gather data and work toward setting targets for phosphorous in the lake.

In 2012, interim phosphorus targets for Lake Erie, as well as for the other Great Lakes, were set by Annex 4 of the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. That agreement also committed the Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada to develop targets for both phosphorus concentrations and loadings by February 2016, as well as reduction strategies by 2018.

Rissien, however, noted that the joint targets would not be legally binding. On April 2, he called on the governors and premiers of bordering states and territories to commit to reducing phosphorus runoff by at least 40 percent.

That figure comes from a report published in 2013 by a task force convened by Ohio’s Lake Erie Commission and its departments of agriculture and natural resources. It found that reducing phosphorus loading by 40 percent “will significantly reduce or eliminate” harmful algal blooms in the lake’s Western Basin.

“Ideally this would come from reducing phosphorus in rivers and streams, but it could also come from reductions in wastewater treatment plants that discharge phosphorus directly into the lake,” Rissien said.

Those point sources are regulated under the Clean Water Act, but that federal law does not directly address nonpoint sources.

Pollution from nonpoint sources is largely left to the states to address, Curtis said. “But not all states have laws—or enforce them.”

Rissien said he would rather focus on encouraging governors and Canadian premiers to make administrative commitments rather than getting legislation in place that says states must meet certain targets. “Even if they do, it will only matter if other states make the same commitments,” he said.

“All states should be looking to make their nonpoint source programs more effective. There isn’t any question that runoff from farms and fields is a big concern for drinking water quality,” Curtis said. “But Ohio might do everything just right, and if a neighboring state doesn’t do anything there will still be a problem.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Berger in Washington at mberger_ic@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The Ohio Lake Erie Task Force Report from 2013 can be found at: http://lakeerie.ohio.gov/Portals/0/Reports/Task_Force_Report_October_2013.pdf

Annex 4 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement can be found at: http://binational.net/annexes/a4/.