TMACOG stays busy addressing water quality

Melissa Burden

        Kurt Erichsen, vice president of environmental planning at the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, spent more than three decades coordinating the efforts of public and private entities in implementing environmental programs.
        Kari Gerwin, Director of Water Quality Planning, TMACOG, took over in 2018 after Erichson retired. Gerwin had served as storm water program coordinator since 2012. TMACOG’s  four full-time and one part-time Water Quality staff stay busy working with local governments, non-profits, businesses, and universities to create collaborative partnerships that address the region’s water quality issues.  In this Q &A interview, Gerwin talked about how TMACOG has addressed water quality issues in Lake Erie since the Toledo water crisis.
Q.  How would you describe TMACOG’s role in trying to remedy the algal bloom situation?
 A. Following Toledo’s Do Not Drink advisory in 2014, TMACOG’s 140 members decided that we should refocus our efforts to address water quality issues from all angles. We formed committees made up of the region’s water and wastewater operators and built upon existing relationships with watershed leaders in the region.
       We ramped up efforts to control runoff from urban areas using green infrastructure and we began working more closely with the agricultural community to understand the issue of nutrient runoff from the perspective of the farmer.
     Additionally, since 2014, TMACOG has been building a document of policy recommendations – the Agenda for Lake Erie- that we use to engage legislators and policymakers at all levels of government. TMACOG’s role can best be described as facilitating communication among the diverse stakeholders in our region with a goal of achieving regional consensus on these difficult issues.
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. Because we have a plan for the Portage River Watershed that identifies main areas for water quality improvement, we have been able to help our members acquire funds to move forward on some high-impact projects. TMACOG secured a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grant and is working with Ottawa and Wood County Soil and Water Conservation districts to provide funding to farmers to plant cover crops, utilize precision nutrient application techniques, and install drainage water control structures. All of these practices are shown to reduce nutrient runoff.
     We also continue to work with county health districts and sanitary engineers’ offices in the Portage River Watershed to identify and map unsewered areas that rely on home septic systems and identify priority areas for sewer service.
      Most recently TMACOG’s Portage River Basin Council worked closely with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to designate the Portage River as an Ohio State Water Trail. This project will provide users of canoes and kayaks with the information they need to safely use the Portage River for recreational paddling.
Q.    So, are we saving Lake Erie?
 A.  Partners in the water resources world are always in some state of saving the lake. Fifty years ago we began planning for the cleanup of toxin and raw sewage that were a result of rapid industrialization. In the past 20 years, our local governments have worked to eliminate combined sewer overflows to our waterways.
        Both of these nationwide efforts have been successful due to federal regulations and large investments from all levels of government. Lake Erie’s issues are continually evolving and changing in response to activities happening on the land and changes in weather and climate. The algae problem is our generation’s responsibility. So, yes, we are saving Lake Erie.
Q.  What has happened in the last five years that has improved the water quality of Lake Erie?
A.  Municipalities in the TMACOG region are responsible for providing safe and reliable drinking water to about 650,000 citizens. These local governments have really stepped up with nearly $1 billion invested in drinking water technologies to treat algal toxins.
        Thanks to the collaborative work of researchers and local governments, our local water treatment plants are now well equipped to identify algae threats in the lake before they ever reach water intakes.
        The research community has also greatly advanced our knowledge on the causes and sources of nutrient pollution and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), ways to prevent nutrient pollution, and impacts of algal blooms on communities.
         Farmers are participating in programs to reduce nutrient runoff from their fields and they have been responsive over the years to recommendations from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), County Soils and Water Districts, and universities.
        One relatively new practice that we’ve seen really take off in the past five years is drainage water management.
        TMACOG has provided grant funds through the GLRI to farmers to install drainage control structures that allow farmers to hold nutrient-rich drainage water back on their fields so that crops can continue to stay irrigated and have more time to use the nutrients. Controlling drainage water is one of the most effective ways to keep nutrients out of Lake Erie.
        Since 2014, we’ve also seen a surge in the numbers of citizen advocates from around the TMACOG region who are pushing forward initiatives and engaging decision-makers to demand action on the causes of Lake Erie’s algae issues.
        Finally, the state legislature and Governor Mike DeWine have provided much-needed funding through H2Ohio to address Ohio’s water quality issues over the next two years. We hope that this funding will continue to be available well into the future because the threat of algae has no easy or quick solution.


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