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Eerily similar - Ohio and Iowa water quality issues

Article cover photo
Phosphorous-driven algae blooms in Lake Erie that threaten public health and a multi-billion-dollar tourism industry in Ohio are the catalyst behind recent tough decisions to improve water quality. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Matt Wilde, ISA Sr. Writer

Phosphorus-driven algae blooms in Lake Erie that threaten public health and a multi-billion-dollar tourism industry in Ohio are the catalyst behind tough decisions to improve water quality.

 As Iowa works to improve water quality, ISA CEO Kirk Leeds says Iowans can learn from others.

 “As our state continues to fully implement the voluntary strategies called for in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, having a clearer understanding of what other states have experienced and the approaches they are taking to improve water quality is critically important,” Leeds says. “Fairly or unfairly, the challenges in Ohio have received national coverage and I believe there are lessons to learn from gaining a deeper understanding of how they are moving forward.”

 Although Iowa legislators failed to pass a comprehensive water quality bill to provide adequate and sustained funding to support the state’s nutrient reduction strategy, Leeds says Ohio’s efforts can assist in the future.

“ISA’s commitment to addressing Iowa’s water challenges through the voluntary engagement by Iowa’s farmers gives us a unique perspective to help share this evolving story,” Leeds says.

Catalyst for change

Ohio’s wakeup call came late on a Friday.It was Aug. 2, 2014 and a series of tests of Toledo’s drinking water drawn from Lake Erie revealed heightened contamination.

It was Aug. 2, 2014 and a series of tests of Toledo’s drinking water drawn from Lake Erie revealed heightened contamination.

The leading culprit was microsystin, a harmful toxin produced by blue-green algae called microsystis that had beleaguered the shallowest and warmest waters of the Great Lakes for years.

Some wondered if the results were “false positives.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hadn’t established standard testing protocols, according to media reports. The city’s water plant was one of the largest, most advanced in the region and was always able to provide safe drinking water. Plus, it wasn’t initially clear if other communities using Lake Erie as a source water were experiencing the same issues.

The public health risk, though, was too great not to act. Some tests showed the toxin — which can cause gastroenteritis, skin irritation, allergic responses and potentially life-threatening liver damage — was more than twice the allowable level at 2.5 parts per billion.

At 2 a.m. the next day, Aug. 3, 2014, Toledo issued its first “do not drink” or boil warning. For three days, more than 500,000 metro-area residents couldn’t get safe water from the tap.

“That devastated businesses around here,” says Paul Pacholski, a recently retired fishing charter boat captain, who lives a stone’s throw from the lake and depended on it for a living. “Bottled water couldn’t be found within a 75-mile radius.”

Ohio officials predominantly agree phosphorus runoff from farm fields in the nearly 5-million-acre Lake Erie basin watershed, which encompasses all or parts of 24 counties, is the primary culprit for Erie’s algal blooms. The Maumee River is the main conduit of nutrients from subwatersheds to the lake. Phosphorus feeds the algae, though nitrogen can affect the size, composition and toxicity of the blooms.

Phosphorus from leaky home septic systems and point sources like wastewater treatment plants also contribute to the state’s water woes.

During dry years, such as 2016, algae isn’t much of an issue in the lake. But if May and June are wet and significant runoff occurs like what happened in 2014, phosphorus-fed blooms explode come July and August. That year, algae happened to form near Toledo Water Work’s intake crib two miles offshore.

“It looks like pea soup when it’s bad,” says Terry McClure, Ohio Soybean Council chairman. “However, I was on Lake Erie fishing last year and it looked great.”

The Grover Hill, Ohio, farmer adds just because there isn’t a problem every year doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Farmers and residents need to work to improve water quality.

“It’s about doing the right thing because it’s our lakes and rivers,” says McClure, who’s working to limit nutrient runoff from his farm. “We can choose to be part of the problem or the solution.”

Water quality is job one

Improving water quality is an ongoing priority in Ohio, officials say.

The Buckeye State battled Lake Erie algae blooms in the 1970s and early 80s. At the time, research showed phosphorus that feeds algae was delivered to waterways via sediment.

A combination of government conservation incentives and voluntary actions by farmers to prevent erosion such as grass waterways and no-till were widely adopted. Today, 60-70 percent of the state’s 4.5 million soybean acres are no-till, according to Ohio soybean leaders.

“Folks came together and the problem went away for a long time,” says Kirk Merritt, executive director of the Ohio Soybean Association and Ohio Soybean Council. “Farmers were asked to step up and they did.” 

By the mid-1990s, toxic algae started to plague Erie again along with other lakes and rivers. Scientists learned dissolved phosphorus moving through ag drainage tiles to waterways is a contributor. The Western Lake Erie basin —highly productive land that requires drainage tile to be farmed— is known as the Black Swamp.

Grand Lake St. Marys, Ohio’s largest inland lake at nearly 13,000 acres, has a chronic algae problem. The EPA declared its nearly 60,000-acre watershed distressed, which put it on a “pollution diet” or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) in 2011, like the Chesapeake Bay. As a result, the state established rules to reduce nutrient loadings in the lake. Nutrient management plans are required for all producers in the watershed and manure/fertilizer application is banned from Dec. 15 to March 1 unless special permission is granted by the state.

Ohio officials assembled the first of two phosphorus task forces in 2007 made up of government, environmental and agricultural stakeholders and scientists to study and come up with solutions for Lake Erie.

In response to task force findings, the state formed the Directors’ Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group to identify and implement agricultural practices that would reduce harmful algal blooms without curtailing ag production or profitability.

“We were doing good things, but the Toledo water crisis ramped up our efforts,” says Karl Gebhardt, Ohio EPA deputy director for water resources. “It was the catalyst … the wakeup call.”

When public health in Ohio’s fourth-largest city and a multi-billion-dollar tourism industry were threatened, state officials say citizens demanded swift, bold actions to clean up Lake Erie and all waters of the state and prevent such a crisis from happening again.

“People come here for the beaches and fishing. It’s the walleye capital of the word,” says Pacholski, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. “When blooms are bad, you will lose 20-25 percent of your (fishing charter) business.”

Heidelberg University in Ohio, known for its water quality and monitoring work, reported phosphorus loads in the Maumee River were below average in March and April. However, loadings increased due to heavy rains in early May.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies forecast in mid-July that this year’s western Lake Erie algal bloom will be the third or fourth largest on record since aerial surveillance began in 2002. However, officials in Toledo and other communities that source drinking water from the lake don’t expect algae to hamper those efforts.

Call to action

Merritt says three things became abundantly clear after the Toledo water crisis:

  • Ohio’s 24,000 soybean farmers contribute to the problem and will be part of the solution.
  • Crop, livestock and farm organizations need to unite and be as proactive as possible.
  • Lawmakers made it clear voluntary-only efforts to curb nonpoint source pollution in the Lake

Erie basin and statewide was no longer an option.

Merritt says Ohio soybean leaders participated in discussions to craft action plans.

“You are either at the table or on it,” Merritt says. “For organizations like ours, water quality is the top priority.”

In the spring of 2010, Ohio soybean started to work with researchers to identify why and how phosphorus was leaving fields. Millions in checkoff funds have been invested to study nutrient movement and develop recommendations to better utilize and retain it on farm fields.

Merritt says soybean farmers supported research and good policy to improve water quality long before Toledo’s water scare. 

“That just raised the profile and intensity around the issue,” he adds. 

The public wanted the legislature to act, Ohio’s top soybean executive says. Bob Peterson, a state senator and farmer, agrees.

When the health of people and pets were jeopardized, the leaders say some form of regulation to protect them was inevitable.

“It was our job to make sure new regulations were as reasonable as possible and science based,” Merritt says.

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