Lake Erie's algae ills stir debate on farm rules
- State, farm industry officials says letting farms voluntarily adopt new practices aid Lake Erie.
- Environmentalists urge federal aid conditions for large livestock operations that create phosphorus.
- Michigan official said voluntary measures are likely to produce better results than regulation.
In the wake of August's drinking water emergency in southeast Michigan and in Ohio, the agriculture industry has quickly come under the microscope as a major contributor to the region's problem with algae in Lake Erie.
Industry changes have been made — and more are in the works — but it is unclear how much impact they will have. Lawmakers, environmentalists and farmers are debating whether increased federal regulation is necessary to get farms in line with best management practices.
Roughly 400,000 residents in Toledo and most of Monroe County in southeastern Michigan found themselves unable to use tap water for more than two days in early August after sampling showed traces of toxic algae. Phosphorus, from sewage discharges and farming operations in the form of manure and fertilizer, is considered the main culprit in the formation of algae.
Large-scale farming operations have received particular scrutiny, with some critics calling for greater regulation.
State and agriculture industry officials counter that letting farms voluntarily adopt new practices will be enough to cut the amount of phosphorus going into Lake Erie. One such operation is Jill Johnson and Mary Wills' Crane Dance Farm outside Grand Rapids that keeps a manageable number of cattle and pigs grazing in their pasture.
"What was being done 10 years ago is not good enough now," said Joan Rose, a professor and co-director at Michigan State University's Center for Water Sciences. "Why? Because we have more people, we have more animals and the climate is changing. Those things are converging to cause more and more problems."
Both sides agree more needs to be done.
"Do we recognize (phosphorus) is a problem? Absolutely," said Jim Bynum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association. "Do we have a silver-bullet solution? No way. ... We want to make sure what happens in addressing it makes sense."
Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality has several initiatives designed to address phosphorus going into western Lake Erie. They include:
¦Placing phosphorus limits on wastewater treatment plants.
¦Urging other states to adopt Michigan's ban on phosphorus-based lawn fertilizers.
¦Devising ways of attacking invasive species such as the quagga and zebra mussels that contribute to the proliferation of algae.
Large farm operations that apply fertilizer or manure to the land can't use them until they are certified through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting. But there is little monitoring in place to make sure manure and fertilizers are applied at the right time and in the right way.
Dan Wyant, DEQ's director, said voluntary measures are likely to produce better results than regulation.
"I feel that if you use the command-and-control approach, you'll get the absolute minimum in response," he said. "It creates a larger bureaucracy that I don't think gets us more in the end."
The Michigan Agri-Business Association is promoting a new fertilizer certification program for its members, Bynum said. Operations using large amounts of fertilizer or manure would be required to complete a training session on how and when applications should be administered.
The Ohio Farm Bureau recently embarked on a similar plan, attempting to get all of its members in the western Lake Erie basin certified by April.
"We're going to do this before it becomes a mandate," Bynum said. "Doing something like this through the legislature would take more time."
Bynum added that his members are not necessarily opposed to regulations geared toward getting farms to adopt best management practices. Like Wyant, he said he wants to wait and see how efforts to study the scope of the problem combine with new technologies and voluntary measures to bring algae in Lake Erie under control.
Members of the Sierra Club in Michigan argue the federal government should attach conditions to federal aid for large livestock operations that generate the largest amounts of phosphorus.
Officials with the conservation group feel that allowing those operations to continue harmful practices while receiving state and federal money is essentially subsidizing bad habits.
Thirty-seven concentrated animal feeding operations were cited for violations by environmental agencies between 1996 and 2012, according to the Sierra Club. The farms collectively received $26 million in federal farm bill subsidies — an average of $44,000 per farm annually.
The commitment to sustainable practices that reduce phosphorus by Crane Dance Farm in Middleville puts it at a competitive disadvantage.
Instead of having hundreds of livestock, Johnson and Wills keep their operation more manageable — 80 head of cattle and 100 pigs.
"Because we manage multi-species grazing, we're really not using that much manure," said Johnson, who with Wills has run the farm for six years. "And since everything is on pasture, we're not using pesticides either."
But to expand their operation, Johnson and Wills would have to rent land, bidding against larger corporate farming operations — places that have deeper pockets and receive tax dollars.
The agriculture industry has not only managed to avoid any new regulation, but some legislators are working to limit future federal oversight.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill called the Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act that would curb U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules.
U.S Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, touted her support.
"By stopping the EPA from expanding their scope and requiring the agency to coordinate with states, this legislation will help to protect this nation's agricultural community from federal overreach that threatens their livelihood and, ultimately, the nation's economic success," Miller said in a statement.
For conservation groups, it's another move in the wrong direction that would frustrate efforts to improve Lake Erie.
"This proposal would undermine efforts to protect the lakes and the benefits they offer," said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.