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Ohio EPA Rightly Calls Lake Erie Impaired, Now Time for Effective Solutions

Adam Rissien, July 28, 2016

Today, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency released its draft list of severely polluted lakes and rivers it considers “impaired” under the Clean Water Act. Included are portions of Lake Erie where Toledo draws its drinking water, as well as miles of shoreline and areas around the lake islands. Even before the Toledo water crisis almost two years ago where nearly half a million residents were told not to drink their tap water due to toxic algae contamination, several organizations were calling for an impairment designation, and those voices have only gotten louder.

The OEC believes the impaired designation should apply throughout the whole western basin, but support the agency in taking this step forward. Now we urge Ohio EPA to focus on the hard work of ensuring the lake provides safe drinking water and can continue to serve as the region’s economic anchor.

The next step for the Ohio EPA is to establish a daily loading limit (called a Total Daily Maximum Load -TMDL) on the amount of pollution flowing into the western Lake Erie basin. However, to be effective such a limit would have to apply to all the rivers and streams that eventually flow into the basin, including those in Michigan and Indiana. Ohio cannot go it alone, which is why it makes sense for the US EPA to establish a western basin TMDL.

To be truly effective the TMDL must apply regionally and include actions that will effectively curb agricultural runoff pollution. That means doing more than what Ohio currently proposes in a plan currently being finalized that seeks to reduce phosphorus pollution by 40% by 2025.  See here for our comments on this plan. Unfortunately that plan lacks any measures that will effectively address pollution from big agriculture.

It is widely understood phosphorus pollution from the Maumee River is the main driver of western Lake Erie’s toxic algae. Numerous scientists estimate 85% of the river’s pollution comes from crop fields and livestock operations. Ohio’s plan relies primarily on voluntary measures to reduce these sources of pollution, which has historically been the main approach. More of the same is not going to solve the problem.

A tri-state TMDL would require each state to provide reasonable assurances their plans would work and hold them to it. To be clear though, that does not actually mean Ohio would enact new protections requiring the agricultural industry stop polluting our waterways. The Ohio EPA could continue to rely on its plans that relies on voluntary incentive programs. That is why we have been calling on our state lawmakers and officials to establish new policies that ensures widespread adoption of conservation practices and proper applications of fertilizer and manure.

Should Ohio actually enact new policies, then it is reasonable to give the state plan a chance to work. However, should it fail, then Ohio should ask the US EPA to step in and develop a tri-state TMDL along with a plan that includes stronger measures that will successfully restore Lake Erie to the jewel it once was.