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OEC calls for stronger plan to address Lake Erie’s toxic algae plague

Adam Rissien, June 27, 2016

Today the Ohio Environmental Council joined with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Freshwater Future and the Ohio Environmental Stewardship Alliance commenting on Ohio’s blueprint for curbing western Lake Erie’s toxic algae. See here for comments.

Just before Memorial Day, Governor Kasich’s administration released its draft plan to cut phosphorus entering the lake by 40% by 2025. While it includes a number of positive aspects, overall it needs improvements to be successful.

Specifically, the plan continues to emphasize voluntary measures as the solution to control runoff pollution from big agriculture, which scientists recognize as the primary source of pollution feeding the lake’s algae. In fact, a recent study casts doubt on the reliance of voluntary adoption of conservation practices to adequately reduce pollution from industrial scale crop and livestock production. The draft plan does not include any new controls on agricultural pollution and continues to rely on the same failed approach.

The plan does contain promising proposals for some state agencies with clearly defined roles. The Ohio Dept. of Health will focus on identifying failing home septic systems and assuring they are properly addressed. The Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources will work to create new coastal wetlands from remediated dredged material, which will help filter pollution while creating quality wildlife habitat. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has numerous responsibilities that, among others, includes addressing phosphorus from specific facilities and combined sewer overflows; establishing monitoring protocols; recommending nutrient diets in priority watersheds; and tracking and verifying water quality improvements from nutrient reduction practices. In fact, OEPA will work with the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture to implement a new verification and evaluation program of best management practices adopted by crop and livestock producers. Under the new program, the agencies will be able to ensure practices are properly in place and working as intended.

The Lake Erie Commission has a central role in coordinating the plan’s implementation and will be assessing the allocation of existing funds to determine if there is a need to refocus those resources. The commission will also explore establishing a Conservation Land Tax that will reward landowners that place land into long-term conservation programs. While this is still an incentive approach, it is different from traditional federal and state programs that offer financial assistance. Additionally, the commission is also tasked with developing “trigger mechanisms” that would come into effect if the plan is not working to meet the 40% reduction goal. All these efforts are promising, if still a bit nebulous in their implementation and resulting effectiveness.

In comparison, the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture appears to continue its traditional role of promoting cost-share programs, though focused in priority watersheds and in one case, re-packaged as a new Farm Stewardship Certification program. The agency offers no new water quality protections through rule revisions, though the plan does state enforcement of current restrictions will be a “top priority.” How this differs from current efforts is unclear or if this means the agency will rely less on citizen complaints to enforce its rules. Currently most agricultural pollution rules are triggered only when someone calls or writes the agency to inform them of a possible violation.

What is clear, state lawmakers and officials need to establish new policies that ensure widespread adoption of conservation practices and proper applications of fertilizer and manure; voluntary incentive programs will not be enough.

The full Ohio Plan can be found at this link.