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Poll: Northwest Ohioans Want More Farm Regulations to Manage Algal Blooms

An Aug.15 aerial photo shows the algal bloom in Lake Erie's western basin. [NOAA / Aerial Associates Photography Inc.]
An aerial photo taken Aug. 15 shows the algal bloom in Lake Erie's western basin.

A majority of people in Northwest Ohio — where algal blooms in Lake Erie are causing public health problems — think there should be new regulations to prevent farm fertilizer and manure from flowing into Lake Erie, according to a poll released Sept. 10.

The poll was conducted for the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), based in Chicago. Of the 500 registered voters surveyed in Erie, Lucas, Ottawa and Sandusky counties, 59 percent said they supported a moratorium on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — large livestock farms where animals are kept on site for more than 45 days per year. The same proportion (59 percent) supported expanding the permitting process to include more CAFOs.

The results show Northwest Ohioans want more regulation of when and how manure can be stored on farms or used as fertilizer, said Howard Learner, ELPC's executive director.

"These are not mom and pop small farms," he says. "They produce many tons of manure that are spread on fields and stored in lagoons and then runs off into the waterways that flow into Lake Erie."

Previous research by ELPC has contended large livestock farms have proliferated in Northwest Ohio, with the number of chickens, pigs and cows more than doubling since 1998. Meanwhile, the ELPC said, the permitting process governing the farms' expansion has been lax, contributing to consistently high levels of algae-related toxicity in Lake Erie since at least 2011. Residents of Toledo were told not to drink tap water in 2014 due to algal contamination.

"The four primary algal toxins that we're concerned about, they're capable of producing toxins [that] are more toxic than cyanide," said Jeff Reutter, former director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program and Stone Laboratory at The Ohio State University. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found  harmful algae blooms can cause diarrhea, vomiting and liver damage in people and animals when consumed.

The Ohio Farm Bureau, which represents farmers, says it doesn't dispute that farm runoff is a primary factor leading to harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie. But it opposes new regulation as the go-to solution.

"Too many times the narrative is, 'Stop fertilizing, the lake cleans up'," says Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Bureau. "It's not that simple."

Instead, he says the Ohio Farm Bureau is looking into more precise ways of applying fertilizer and rotating crops to improve soil quality.

Cornely also points to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's H2Ohio Initiative, a new, $172 million fund dedicated to protecting Lake Erie and other waterways, as offering practical solutions for improving water quality while not burdening farmers. The initiative would ultimately provide $900 million over 10 years for a slate of programs such as increasing staffing for soil and water conservation districts, creating new wetlands, and supporting research into better fertilizer application methods.

The algal bloom in western Lake Erie currently covers an area six times the size of the City of Cleveland.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.