Years needed to gauge efforts to cut Lake Erie algae

John Seewer
Associated Press

Perrysburg, Ohio — State agriculture and environmental leaders have made a number of changes to attack toxic algae in western Lake Erie, most notably prohibiting farmers in northwestern Ohio from spreading manure on frozen and rain-soaked fields and requiring training before they can use commercial fertilizers.

Soon, they’ll be handing out $12 million to farmers who take steps to reduce the pollutants that wash off their fields and help feed the algae, which have contaminated drinking water supplies and helped create dead zones where fish can’t survive.

Now the big question is, will it work?

It will be a few years before the changes take root and state officials can determine how much progress is being made in reducing the intensity of the harmful algae blooms.

If those changes don’t work, tougher regulations and new approaches will be needed so that Ohio, along with Michigan and Ontario, can reach their goal of cutting the amount of phosphorus flowing into western Lake Erie by 40 percent within the next 10 years.

Charting the progress will start with monitoring the phosphorus that washes off farm fields and feeds the algae.

“That’s going to be critical for us to start making judgments about these practices,” said Craig Butler, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio has extensive monitoring of the waterways in the northwestern area of the state near the lake but still needs more, Butler said.

Researchers from Ohio State University and Heidelberg University in northern Ohio also will be monitoring runoff along farm fields to determine how effective cover crops and drainage control structures are at filtering and holding back the phosphorus.

Ohio officials announced last week they will use $12 million from the federal government as incentives for farmers who plant cover crops, grass filter strips or add the drainage systems. What isn’t known yet is whether they will make a big impact.

“That’s going to have to come soon for us to make some credible measurements back to the public and say the money we’ve spent has been worth it,” Butler said.

The new money will put over 100,000 acres in Ohio into conservation practices.

“We’re making big steps in the right direction, but we can’t stall out now,” said Kristy Meyer, of the Ohio Environmental Council.

More regulations are needed, she said, such as requiring farmers to test their soil each year and better farm management plans to reduce the phosphorus going into the lake. “Voluntary actions aren’t going to cut it,” Meyer said.

Karl Gebhardt, the state EPA’s deputy director for water resources, said that while phosphorus runoff amounts vary each year because of weather patterns, there is starting to be a slight trend downward.

“We definitely have more practices on the ground,” he said. “I would think in most normal years we’d see a reduction.”