Algae Blooms: Ohio Spent Billions But Only One Percent On Agriculture

Boats on Lake Erie in 2017 [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]
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Since 2011, Ohio has spent more than $3 billion on efforts to solve Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom problem. Yet the majority of the money isn’t going to projects that stop algal blooms at the source.

$2.3 billion of the state money – or 76 percent - went to wastewater improvement or drinking water projects. The money comes from U.S. EPA’s State Revolving Fund (SRF), which loans water systems the money for treatment plant upgrades and other infrastructure projects.

The City of Akron’s plan to build underground storage tunnels for combined sewer overflow (when storm water and wastewater combine and end up in streams and lakes) received more than $368 million in loans.

A similar project in Toledo received $269 million.

But combined sewer overflows contribute a small portion -- 9 percent -- of the nutrients that end up in Lake Erie, according to Ohio EPA’s research from earlier this year.

Instead, the primary cause of algal blooms comes from non-point source pollution, including agricultural runoff.

To address the problem, about $10.8 million went to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Department of Agriculture, providing money for farmers to implement best management practices and install structures to help reduce nutrient runoff.

“I can only spend the money where I’m allowed to spend the money,” said Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler, citing what he calls “strict limitations” on SRF money.

But Butler says these projects need to be funded.

“Most of these wastewater treatment facilities are coming to the end of their useful life and need to be replaced,” said Butler. “We’re able to use the power of our fund to do that.”

The National Wildlife Federation’s Gail Hesse agrees. But she says these projects are not going to address harmful algal blooms.

“We need to focus on more agricultural programs, and looking at, how do we work with agricultural production and managing fertilizer and managing that runoff into our streams?” said Hesse.

Kris Swartz is a soybean, corn, and wheat farmer in Wood County. He received state funding to install three drainage control structures on his farm. The structures hold water in and keep phosphorus on the field.

Swartz says he may not have purchased the structures, which can cost up to $2000 apiece, without state assistance. He’d like to see more funding for Ohio farmers, especially, he says, because these structures and practices might not help a farmer’s bottom line.

“If a guy wants to implement some of these new practices – and sometimes they’re costly – it’s really hard to put a pencil to any economic benefit,” said Swartz. “A guy really has to have a strong desire to put them in.”

Federal funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Farm Bill provide opportunities for farmers too.

Butler points out federally-directed funds have been spent on conservation and stream restoration projects.

But Ohio EPA data shows there’s been no clear decrease in the amount of nutrients entering Lake Erie, especially in non-point source dominated watersheds, like the Maumee River.

“I believe that the issue is that we just don’t have enough practices on the ground at a scale that we need to make a difference for phosphorus reduction in the western basin,” said Hesse.

Butler has shifted his approach, shopping legislation around the Ohio statehouse that would put regulations on some farmers. But the bill has not been introduced.

Governor Kasich is expected to issue an executive order in the next week. It will likely have to do with fertilizer and farming.

Ohio’s agricultural community has already come out against this executive order.

“The governor has not talked to lawmakers or anyone who will have to deal with the consequences of an executive order,” said Tadd Nicholson, executive director of Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association in a statement last month. “I can tell you for a fact, any decision is being made without input from the ag community.”

Butler says discussion is fine, but the time to act is now.

“When asked the question of, you’ve spent $3.5 billion dollars, are you making progress? The monitors show we’re not on track to meet this 40 percent reduction goal by 2025,” said Butler. “I think that’s a problem. The governor thinks that’s a problem.”

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