How Hard Will Pruitt Crack Down on Lake Erie Farmers?

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By David Schultz

The business of growing food in the upper Midwest may be about to significantly change.

An agreement reached last year between the U.S. and Canada may force state and federal officials to impose new limits on the amount of fertilizer that can be applied by farmers in parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. The two countries are seeking to halve the amount of nutrients, mostly from farms, that wash into Lake Erie. High levels of nutrients can cause algae blooms that contaminate the lake, an important drinking water source.

Some Lake Erie farmers have voluntarily adopted measures to reduce their fertilizer use and prevent the erosion of their topsoil. But, depending on how the binational process plays out, adopting those types of soil conservation measures may no longer become voluntary, something that deeply worries the local agriculture industry.

“Farmers are not big fans of regulation,” Joe Cornely, a spokesman with the Ohio Farm Bureau, told Bloomberg BNA. “Decisions are best made locally.”

Good Soil’s Not Pretty

So what does it look like when a farmer adopts these soil conservation measures? In northwest Ohio, in early spring, one of these fields is not very pretty.

It’s cold and wet, and the snowmelt has saturated the soil creating a dark black mud. A week or two before planting season, no one is working in the fields. Instead dead plants—an assortment of partially decomposed radishes, peas, oats and sunflowers—litter the untilled rows.

This farm belongs to Mike Libben, head of the local Soil and Water Conservation District in Ottawa County just outside of Toledo. Libben’s farm may not be aesthetically pleasing, but everything he does is geared toward enriching his soil with nutrients and preventing it from washing away.

He’s installed more efficient drainage systems that allow him to store water under his fields. He doesn’t till his land, because that promotes erosion. And he plants cover crops—the radishes, peas, oats and sunflowers—which hold the soil in place and infuse it with nutrients after they decompose, reducing the need for more fertilizer.

Ohio farmer Tom Schuffenecker surveys the field of his neighbor, Mike Libben. In early spring, before planting, this field is full of decomposing sunflowers, radishes and other cover crops that hold the soil in place and fertilize it naturally. David Schultz/Bloomberg BNA

An evangelist for this type of farming, Libben tries to persuade his neighbors through the conservation district to take similar measures. The goal is to reduce the amount of nutrient-laden sediment washing off into Lake Erie, the main source of drinking water for dozens of cities and towns, including Toledo.

Some farmers are receptive, he said, but others are stubbornly immune to his pitches. “It still always comes back to the cost,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “‘What’s the bottom line for me? You want me to spend how many dollars and I don’t get anything for it?’ But it’s the hidden benefits of it.”

No Longer Voluntary?

The benefits of soil conservation become more clear when considering what happens when too much fertilizer washes off of farms and drains into Lake Erie. The fertilizer contains nutrients, primarily phosphorus, that are the primary cause of massive algae blooms that have plagued the western part of the lake in recent years.

A large algae bloom can suck all of the oxygen out of the water, creating hypoxic dead-zones where aquatic life can’t survive.

And, under certain circumstances, these blooms can release toxins that are hard to detect in drinking water. In the summer of 2014, more than 400,000 residents in and around Toledo were told not to use their taps for three days after the city’s water utility was surprised by an algae bloom that formed right in front of its intake pump inside Lake Erie.

A satellite view of a 2014 algae bloom in Lake Erie's western basin. Toxins released by this blue-green algae contaminated drinking water in Toledo, Ohio, forcing local officials to shut down their city's water system for several days. Jeff Schmaltz/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Partly spurred on by this incident, the U.S. reached its agreement with Canada last year to reduce the amount of nutrients trickling into Lake Erie by 40 percent.

As a part of the Lake Erie agreement with Canada, which was signed less than a year before the end of the Obama administration, each country has to develop a set of actions to meet the 40 percent nutrient reduction target by February 2018.

Farm Runoff

While nutrients can come from many sources, such as sewers that carry human waste as well as phosphorus-rich detergents away from homes and businesses, farms contribute the overwhelming majority that winds up in Lake Erie and other bodies of water. More than 65 percent of the phosphorus in Lake Erie comes from farms, according to the Ohio Sea Grant.

And in northwest Ohio, farmland dominates the landscape. Nearly three quarters of the land that drains into the Maumee River, the largest western tributary into Lake Erie, is used for agriculture, according to the National Center for Water Quality Research.

The Maumee River drains into Lake Erie at its shallowest point in Toledo, Ohio. Almost three quarters of the land in the Maumee drainage basin (shown here) is used for agriculture. Karl Musser/CC-ASA license

But if this region has been farmed for generations, why are algae blooms suddenly a problem now? Climate change is one unavoidable reason, Gail Hesse, head of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes program, said.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and the lake is at its shallowest in its western third near Toledo. That means that rising air temperatures can more easily warm the water there, creating optimal conditions for algae growth. Additionally, even though farmers have become more efficient in applying fertilizer over the years, storms have also become more intense, washing more topsoil into the lakes.

Hesse said the Trump administration won’t be able to avoid these facts when crafting its plan to get to 40 percent. “There’s no way to achieve those targets without putting restrictions on agriculture in the western basin,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

Agreement Moving Forward

At first glance, it would seem as if the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for crafting the U.S. action plan, would have little appetite to take measures that dictate to farmers when and how they can apply fertilizer.

The new administration has consistently staked out pro-business positions on nearly every environmental issue and the agency’s new leader, Scott Pruitt, was lauded with three standing ovations when he spoke at a Farm Bureau conference shortly after taking office.

But, so far, there’s no evidence that the EPA is abandoning the Lake Erie agreement.

Wendy Carney, a deputy director in the EPA’s Great Lakes regional office, said the agency is collaborating with the five states in the Lake Erie watershed on to come up with an action plan. She said they’re on track to release a draft version this summer and then finalize it before the end of this year, several months ahead of schedule.

“Agricultural runoff is the top priority for management efforts, particularly in the Maumee River basin,” Carney told Bloomberg BNA in an email.

Sandra George, one of Carney’s counterparts across the border, also said the change in administrations in the U.S. has had no effect on the two countries’ work.

“We still meet,” George, a program coordinator in Canada’s federal environmental agency, told Bloomberg BNA. “We’re doing what we need to do.”

‘Fans of Regulation’

Cornely, the Ohio Farm Bureau spokesman, said he hopes the EPA takes into account all of the action on this issue that’s been happening at the state and local levels. As an example, he pointed to the law Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) signed in 2015 banning the application of fertilizer on frozen or saturated ground, when it’s more susceptible to washing away.

Conditions across the Lake Erie watershed, from Toledo in the west to Buffalo in the east, vary so much that a top-down solution to the runoff problem is not feasible, he said.

“If the overall goal is for each of these government subdivisions to reach [a target], it seems to me to let each one of those entities figure out how to get there,” Cornely said. “It’s pretty rare that a one-size-fits-all regulation works.”

But Cornely acknowledged that, if farmers want the EPA to go gentle on them in regulating runoff, they will need to show that they can deal with the problem themselves. This probably will involve more enthusiastic adoption of the kinds of soil conservation measures that Libben is trying to get his neighbors to adopt, he said.

“If you ask for the authority to stay local, it’s incumbent upon you to come up with something that works,” Cornely said. “Rights come accompanied by responsibility.” This story was made possible in part by a fellowship with the I nstitute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at

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