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The Press Newspaper

Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

The Press Newspaper

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For more than three decades, Kurt Erichsen, vice president of environmental planning at the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, has been coordinating the efforts of public and private entities in implementing environmental programs.

He shares his thoughts about algal problems in the western basin of Lake Erie.


Q. As someone who’s been involved in environmental matters in Northwest Ohio/S.E. Michigan for 31 years, where do you think we’ve made the most progress in addressing stormwater run-off and related problems?

A. Throughout the region, a great many homeowners have replaced septic systems that we know discharged bacteria and nutrients. Sewage treatment has made great progress through sewer extensions and new or improved treatment plants.

Managing stormwater to reduce pollution is a program that didn't exist 30 years ago. Stormwater programs today help protect Lake Erie.


Q. What areas have been lacking?

A. First, septic systems are an often overlooked source of phosphorus. The Ohio Department of Health calculates that 39 percent of northwest Ohio household sewage systems have failed or are substandard. New sewage rules that go into effect next year will help, but they lack financial assistance to the health departments to implement the rules, or to homeowners for upgrading their sewage systems.

Next, more work is needed to help the agricultural community reduce dissolved phosphorus loading. Since the 1980s, Ohio agriculture has been very responsive in supporting conservation tillage and reducing phosphorus fertilizer use. But the lake ecosystem has changed, and now the emphasis is on dissolved phosphorus, which calls for a new set of management practices.

Also, the practice of disposing of Toledo harbor dredgings in the lake should be replaced by coastal or upland beneficial reuse of the material. Dredging the shipping channel is absolutely essential for our economy. We don’t think the dredge spoils are the single or even the largest contributor of phosphorus to the Lake Erie Western Basin. But the Corps of Engineers invests considerable effort and expense in dredging sediment out of the channel. Having gone that far, removing the sediment and its nutrients from the ecosystem altogether can only benefit Lake Erie.


Q. From 2007 to 2011 TMACOG and the Portage River Basin Council prepared a plan for that river’s watershed. Have funding and resources been available to implement many of its strategies?

A. The Portage Watershed Plan identifies three main areas for water quality improvement: public sewage treatment, septic systems and agriculture.

Most of the public sewage treatment needs have been completed or are underway. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency data found 86 percent of test sites failing bacteria standards, indicating widespread septic system failure. As I said above, funding to address septic systems is lacking.

The State of Ohio, OEPA and Ohio Department of Natural Resources, U.S. EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bureau and other agencies have been very responsive with funding to promote agricultural best management practices. The funding provided has been substantial and is a good start toward solving the problem.

Q. How would you describe TMACOG’s role in trying to remedy the algal bloom situation?

A. TMACOG is a regional council of 140 local governments, businesses and nonprofits serving six counties.

TMACOG promotes communication between federal, state, and local governments. Our programs have helped many local officials become well-versed on Lake Erie phosphorus issues.

We work to promote clean water on a watershed level by working with local governments on regional plans for sewage treatment, stormwater, and green infrastructure.

Finally, we work with partner agencies — state and federal agencies, park districts, universities, and local governments to name a few — to restore natural habitat that keeps phosphorus out of the lake.

We have an engaged environmental community in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan that is technically savvy and cooperative. We have a lot of expertise and mutual respect between governments, agencies, and citizens. Phosphorus has been known to be a problem and we have collectively put a lot of attention into learning more. It will take continued study and focus but we aren’t held back by finger pointing. Phosphorus enters the lake from many different sources, and it all contributes to the algal problem. Everybody has a role in controlling it.

 

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