Polluted Waters Run Deep

Last summer’s water crisis in Toledo was a rude awakening for hundreds of thousands of Ohio residents who get their drinking water from Lake Erie. Many are still worried about the future safety of their water. It’s a justifiable concern. Water managers acknowledge that the lake’s recurring toxic bacteria blooms could spark more water shutdowns like the one in Toledo.

It Starts With Agriculture

Roger Lange, vice president of Seneca County’s Ohio Farm Bureau, is the first to admit it all starts with agriculture.

Lange has heard what scientists are saying—that fertilizer runoff, including manure from fields of corn, soybeans, and winter wheat from the Maumee River basin, is the primary source of the blooms. Lange wants to help because he says farmers have a stake in water quality.

“We’re as concerned as the people of Toledo, because water is the lifeblood of our farming operations too,” says Lange.

That’s why Lange is one of nearly 1,000 Northwest Ohio farmers who were among the first in the state to take a fertilizer certification class last fall. That certification is now mandatory for farmers and co-ops who apply fertilizer to more than 50 acres grown primarily for sale under a new state law designed to help reduce the flow of fertilizer nutrients—particularly phosphorus—to Lake Erie. At this point, manure-spreading is exempt, although state legislators are hoping to close that loophole this year. The goal, Lange says, is to reduce phosphorus runoff and the spreading of manure on frozen ground.

“We’re doing a lot of what they call ‘grid sampling’ on 10-acre grids [to] apply just what is needed for the crop,” Lange explains. He says that using GPS-mapped grids to sample soils gives farmers a precise measure of how much phosphorus is already in the ground and how much more is needed to maximize yield. “And we’re finding some places that are very high and some are very low and you just put a little bit of it where it is needed,” he says.

Variable-rate fertilization is a big part of the solution that scientists agree could eventually address the nutrient pollution that’s been plaguing Lake Erie since the late 1990s. But it isn’t going to happen overnight. There are nearly 3 million acres of farmland in the Maumee River basin, where the blooms start. And it’s not just Lake Erie that’s affected.

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Inland Lakes And Reservoirs Also Bearing The Brunt

According to the Ohio EPA, Grand Lake St. Marys in west central Ohio and Buckeye Lake east of Columbus also are suffering from nutrient pollution. Last year, 25 Ohio cities, including Defiance, Norwalk, Galion, and Columbus, detected at least trace amounts of some form of toxic bacteria—what scientists call cyanobacteria—in their raw or finished drinking water, drawn mostly from local reservoirs.

To help communities acquire new technology to make early detection of water-borne toxins easier, the Ohio EPA last August announced a $1 million grant program for the purchase of equipment, supplies, and training. Jim Warner, a lab technician for the Norwalk Water Filtration Plant, was the first to apply for a grant from this state program to purchase testing equipment.

Norwalk’s water isn’t drawn from Lake Erie, but comes from three large reservoirs which are surrounded by farmland. Last August, Warner says one of the more than 80 forms of microcystin—a cyanobacteria toxin—was detected the in the city’s upper reservoir.

“The cyanobacteria we had in our upper reservoir was anabaena. It has three major toxins,” says Warner. “It has the majority of microcystins, saxitoxin, and anatoxin-A. One of the great things about this new Abraxis equipment, it can test for all three of those.”

The Need For Treatment Standards

For water treatment managers like Ottawa County sanitary engineer Kelly Frey, the issue isn’t whether he can detect harmful bacteria—it’s how well he can treat it, especially when levels of toxins are high. Frey says he spends hours each week Googling the best way to remove the toxins. Since the US EPA has not yet determined a best treatment standard, he says he has to rely on information from countries like Australia, where such standards do exist.

“My wish is to know exactly what removes that microcystin from our plant, so that every day when I get up, I can make sure that it is working properly and I feel confident it’s going to be removed,” says Frey.

Frey is not alone in wondering what standard of safety he should apply to his drinking water. Ohio is currently using the World Health Organization’s now outdated 1988 drinking water standard for microcystin-LR. Some states, like Wisconsin, have adopted higher standards. The US EPA has yet to establish a federal standard and isn’t likely to finalize such rules for at least seven years, according to Mike Baker, Chief of the Division of Drinking and Ground Waters for the Ohio EPA.

A Growing International Problem

Nutrient pollution of fresh water systems isn’t limited to Ohio or even to the US. In Vermont, there are new mandatory pollution controls to control toxic bacteria blooms on Lake Champlain, and similar problems exist in the Chesapeake Bay. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cites mild to extreme toxic bacteria problems in all 50 states. And there are examples of fresh and saltwater nutrient pollution—not always, but mainly from agriculture—around the world. That includes the Yangtze River in China, where major eff orts are underway to identify nutrient runoff to the waters both above and below the Three Gorges Dam.

A new peer-reviewed study published this January in Water Resources Research says that pollution of fresh water and the ocean from agricultural fertilization has now surpassed one of the Earth’s environmental planetary boundaries for sustaining human life.

Some scientists now believe that climate change is helping to make nutrient pollution an endemic problem. Others are concerned that nutrients cycling through agents like zebra mussels may be part of the problem. And that’s a huge concern, given that our Great Lakes constitute one-fifth of global fresh water resources.

Should We Be Growing Corn At All?

According to the nonprofit group, Ohio Corn Marketing Program, 99% of corn grown in Ohio is field corn, grown primarily for uses other than human consumption. A whopping 40% of that corn is exported, 30% goes to the production of ethanol, 24% is grown for animal feed, and the rest, a mere 6%, is made into food products like high-fructose corn syrup.

Some scientists, most notably Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, director of The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory and Ohio Sea Grant Program, are beginning to wonder aloud whether we should be growing corn for fuel in the Maumee River basin.

“Should we be using corn as a fuel source for ethanol?” Dr. Reutter asked at an Ohio Farmers Union meeting in Toledo last fall. “Can we say that we need to put this phosphorus on for food production if so much of our corn production goes into ethanol production?”

Dr. Reutter says that’s not a question for science, but for society to answer. Corn requires not only phosphorus, but massive amounts of nitrogen, which Stone Lab scientist Dr. Justin Chaffin believes may play a role in Lake Erie’s toxic bacteria blooms.

There Is A Solution

The good news is that most scientists agree that reducing phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie will slow or eliminate the reoccurrence of toxic bacteria blooms. The question is, by how much? Under a provision of the 2012 bi-national Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, scientists on both sides of the US/Canada border have been working on that problem. Dr. Reutter, who heads the US eff ort, says a final report should be released by May.

Dr. Reutter notes, however, that it may not be cost effective to totally eliminate the blooms. In the meantime, the US government in January pledged an additional $17.5 million for farmland conservation designed to reduce phosphorus in Lake Erie, of which Ohio will receive about $10 million. And both Ohio Senators Randy Gardner of Bowling Green and Bob Peterson of Sabina and Governor John Kasich have proposed new measures to help clean up Lake Erie before the start of this year’s toxic bacteria blooms.