Sunday, August 3, 2014

Expect More Pressure On Farmers After Toledo Water Debacle

From a story earlier in the spring:
The gooey muck she’s talking about is blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, which, when it’s overfed by fertilizers in the water, can grow into blooms that are dangerous to drink or even touch. In recent years cyanobacteria has poisoned multiple pets who drank from the lake, and last summer it shut down a water treatment system in a township near Toledo...
Stepien explains that the Maumee River, a large river that runs through the middle of Toledo and into the bay, carries fertilizer runoff from up to 150 miles away. The Maumee Bay is a particularly warm, shallow part of the lake, and as runoff gathers, the algae becomes a well-fed monster.
But this isn’t some mysterious green goblin. Stepien says the problem can be traced primarily to phosphorus, an ingredient in commercial fertilizers that’s also found in manure, and sewer overflows from municipal water systems....
Most of the area that drains into the Maumee River isn’t golf courses or suburban lawns: it’s farms. There are miles and miles of them — mainly corn, wheat and soybeans — from Toledo all the way up the Maumee River and its tributaries, which extend into Indiana and Michigan.
“We could argue back and forth about is it urban, is it yards, is it agriculture, is it municipal water systems,” says Tadd Nicholson with the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. “I prefer to say it’s all of those things.”
Corn has been booming recently due to ethanol production, so farmers are planting to the very edges of fields, and at least some of them are laying the fertilizer down thick. But Nicholson says the corn industry is producing more corn per acre while also using less fertilizer than it did a few decades ago. In other words, corn can’t be solely to blame for the resurgence of algal blooms. And, like Glorioso, he says education and voluntary programs to reduce runoff are as beneficial for the industry as they are for the lake.
“If we can show farmers how to minimize phosphorus runoff, it’s not a hard sell, it’s something that we are very motivated to do,” he says.
It’s worth noting that over-applying fertilizer isn’t against any laws in Ohio, and agriculture in particular has long been exempted from aspects of the Clean Water Act; the industry has also pushed back against water quality regulations for runoff. There’s a bill pending in the Ohio legislature that would require agricultural users of fertilizer to apply for a permit. It has the support of the Ohio Farm Bureau, but not the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. And even that law is not really a set of rules but a required educational program. In Illinois, a 2010 law restricting the use of phosphorus in fertilizer exempts farms and golf courses.
The Maumee River and Wabash/Grand Lake St. Mary's watersheds are two of the most degraded and heavily farmed watersheds in Ohio.  It is no surprise that they have the worst issues with cyanobacteria.  They both are heavily channelized with little to no filter strips between the water channels (ditches) and crop areas and nearly no vegetation.  Farmers hate regulation, but if we don't get our shit together, we're going to get a lot of it, and deservedly so.  Hopefully, the 'do not drink' order is an overly cautious move to protect the public because the cyanobacteria issue is a poorly understood safety risk.  Even if it is, it is a wake-up call that farmers must heed.


  1. I live on the West Coast (where we have our own water problems currently) and the Ohio situation concerned me because I know people there.

    It would seem that this is a great lessons for anyone who thinks that government regulation is a bad thing. I'm not at all an advocate for the sloth and lazy stereotypical government drone; I absolutely cannot stand that type of person. But the fact is, it's not good to start dumping a bunch of manmade chemicals willy-nilly into the environment, because bad things happen.

    And this is one of those bad things that unfortunately hurts everyone in the area.

    Best of luck to you guys, and earlier generations of my family were farmers in the Mississippi Delta and I'm all for the farm cause.

  2. Thanks for the comment and the support. This was an ugly situation. Hopefully we can get a handle on the issue before massive regulation is required, but we farmers can be very stubborn.