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Ohio Governor Wants New Farm Rules To Fight Lake Erie Algae

Haraz N. Ghanbari
Toledo's water intake crib is surrounded by algae in Lake Erie off the shore of Curtice, Ohio.

Ohio's governor is calling for regulations on thousands of farms as part of a new strategy to combat the fertilizer and manure that flows into streams and feeds persistent toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie.

Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order Wednesday that signals a more aggressive approach to finding a way to stop the algae from taking over huge swaths of the shallowest of the Great Lakes.

The summertime blooms turn the waters of the lake's western end into a pea soup color and are the cause of tainted drinking water, fish kills and beach closures. An outbreak in 2014 contaminated the tap water for two days for more than 400,000 people around Toledo.

Kasich's order calls for issuing "distressed watershed" designations for eight creeks and rivers in northwestern Ohio that are the source for large amounts of phosphorus-rich fertilizer and manure.

Those designations would then require farmers to evaluate their land and make changes — some of those could be costly and force farmers to buy expensive machinery that injects fertilizer into the ground or build storage for livestock manure.

If approved by the state's soil and water commission, the eight designated areas would affect nearly 2 million acres and an estimated 7,000 farms, according to the state's agriculture department.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest agriculture organization, said it wants to know how the state decided to target those eight watersheds and what it will mean for farmers.

"What we have seen raises several concerns," said Joe Cornely, a farm bureau spokesman. "This is a massive undertaking. It's going to take a lot of money, it's going to take a lot of time. Where's that going to come from?"

Ohio's new approach comes just months after the Kasich administration said that the steps farmers have taken aren't working fast enough for Ohio to reach its goal of significantly reducing how much phosphorus enters the lake by within the next seven years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in March endorsed the idea of a 40 percent phosphorus reduction that had been backed previously by Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Research shows that the largest source, by far, of phosphorus and nitrogen going into the lake comes from the Maumee River watershed in northwestern Ohio, whose land is almost entirely in farm production.

Both phosphorus and nitrogen are found in livestock manure and chemical fertilizers that farmers spread onto their fields to increase crop production.

The eight watersheds that are being targeted by the state are contributing more than twice the amount of phosphorus than the level that's needed to reach the 40 percent reduction goal, said Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler.

"We're letting the science guide us to where and what we need to do," he said. "Many of the other watersheds in the western Lake Erie basin are doing better so we don't need to call them distressed."

Farm organizations have said one of their main concerns is that there's still uncertainty over the best approach for solving the algae problem. And there's worry about how much any new regulations from the state will cost.

Some relief on those costs could come from legislation that Kasich also signed Wednesday. It provides $20 million for farming practices that are designed to reduce fertilizer runoff.