Five members of the Ohio House of Representatives, led by Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Dave Hall, descended on the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Visitor’s Center in Portage Township for a special public hearing.
What they got was an earful on the causes and possible cures for the massive algae bloom that covered the western basin of Lake Erie last summer. The cause of the problem was simple and unanimous…phosphorus. However, the solutions may come much harder.
Along with Chairman Hall were State Representatives Dennis Murray (who announced last week he would not seek a third term), Randy Gardner (who announced that he would run for a vacant state senate seat), Rex Damschroeder, and Catherine Clyde from Portage County. They heard from an array of witnesses for over two hours, but perhaps the most compelling came from Dr. Jeffrey Reuters, director of the Ohio Sea Grant program.
Dr. Reuters outlined a number of things in Lake Erie that need fixed —
• First…the sediment problem caused by excess phosphorus.
• Next the harmful algal blooms, also partially caused by excess phosphorus.
• Aquatic invasive species that exacerbate the problem.
• The dead zone in the center of the Lake north of Cleveland.
• The unusual recent weather which he believes has caused more storms and warmer lake temperatures.
Dr. Reuters gave the panel a little history lesson. In the mid 1960s, we had extraordinarily high phosphorus levels in Lake Erie, especially the western basin, and our lake was nationally known as “The Dead Lake”. After the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, measures were taken to limit phosphorus coming into the lake. By the early 1980s, the lake was cleaned up and the Port Clinton area became the Walleye Capitol of the World.
However, in 1985, phosphorus levels began to rise again. In the 60s, the phosphorus came mostly from factories and power plants. Now, it appears that the primary cause of phosphorus in the lake was coming from fertilizer running off from farm fields that surround Lake Erie and its tributaries, particularly the Maumee River. Dr. Reuters believes that we need a 50-66 percent reduction in phosphorus running off into the lake.
The big issue is…how can agricultural interests around the lake reduce the loads of phosphorus on their land used for fertilizer and still remain productive? Dr. Reuters noted that the heavy rains we received last spring certainly impacted the size and scope of the algal blooms in the lake.
Among those testifying were Jim Zehringer, who was recently appointed as the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio EPA director Scott Nally.
Zehringer stated that he has directed all divisions within his department to make Lake Erie water quality a top priority.
“I was appalled to see the pea green color of the lake last summer,” said Zehringer, a farm owner in western Ohio. “It is just not acceptable to allow that to continue.”
Zehringer also stated that “anybody who says this problem is due to slopping agriculture hasn’t done enough research.”
He added, “The big problem is dissolved phosphorus, and the data on how that is being created is incomplete.”
He noted that he is bringing together the resources of several stakeholders in the State to work on the problem.
Ohio EPA Director, Scott Nally, agreed. “We have a three legged stool creating this problem…municipalities, agriculture and manufacturing. All three of those groups need to work together to solve this problem.”
One of the more significant problems is the sewage treatment plant that feeds poorly treated sewage into the Detroit River that flows directly into Lake Erie. With Detroit flirting with bankruptcy and receivership, the belief was that the federal government may come in and mandate the State of Michigan to make a major fix there. Right now, a federal judge is “turning the screws” on Detroit to get that issue solved.
Sandy Bihn, spokesman for the Lake Erie Waterkeeper organization based in Oregon provided the committee with a jar of water taken from Lake Erie in August, eight miles offshore. The green algae in the water has not settled at all in the jar.
Others who testified include Joe Logan of the Ohio Environmental Council, Ken Alvey of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, Larry Fletcher, Director of Lake Erie Shores and Islands West (Ottawa County Visitor’s Bureau), and John Hillenbrandt, General Manager at Cedar Point.
Representative Gardner summed it up…“I get asked, ‘How can we afford to solve the problem?’ After hearing the testimony here, I would have to say…how can we afford not to solve this problem?”
All the officials at the state level who serve for Governor John Kasich noted that the governor is well aware of this problem and that he has directed his government to get “all hands on deck” to solve it.