By Jay Bragg
Recently, 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio were without drinking water due to dangerously high levels of cyanotoxin in Lake Erie, produced by excessive amounts of blue-green algae. National news outlets were quick to point their fingers at agriculture, picking up on the talking points of local politicians, activist groups, and pseudo-scientists.
Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins was quoted by the Los Angeles Times: “Once we clear this problem up, that is not going to eliminate the algae problem in the western basin of Lake Erie; that is not going to eliminate the agricultural runoff; that is not going to eliminate mega-farming.”
The Wall Street Journal reported, “Scientists say a transition from small farms to industrial-sized operations has increased runoff in recent years, and that climate change, with more intense storms and warmer temperatures, has created an ideal environment for algae to grow.”
It’s troubling that national media outlets are failing to discuss the magnitude of other contributing factors, as well as, characterizing family farms as “mega/industrial” operations.
The Lake Erie Waterkeeper claims that more than 10 billion gallons of raw or partially treated municipal sewage is discharged directly to Lake Erie from failing or outdated wastewater infrastructure each year. From 2008 to 2011, EPA reports indicated that the city of Detroit discharged more than 67 billion gallons of untreated sewage into Lake Erie. That’s a volume 319 times greater than BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
In addition, the introduction and proliferation of Zebra Mussels in Lake Erie has directly contributed to the ever worsening blue-green algae problem. Research conducted by the United States Geological Survey has concluded that Zebra Mussels filter the water and eat most algal species but rejected blue-green algae. This has created an ecological imbalance in the lake. With an ample food supply (nutrients) and little or no competition from other algal species, blue-green algae thrive.
While agriculture may contribute some nutrients to Lake Erie, Michigan and Ohio farmers have been doing their part to minimize their contributions. For decades, they have been voluntarily implementing best management practices to improve nutrient efficiencies and reduce losses.
This has resulted in 65 percent less phosphorus (the nutrient of most concern) being applied throughout the watershed. Research conducted on phosphorus transport has determined that today 98 percent of the phosphorus applied to crops remains on the field and are used by the crop—meaning less than 2 percent actually runs off when it rains.
In fact, prior to Zebra Mussels establishing themselves in Lake Erie in the early 1990s, water quality had improved substantially.
Despite their efforts, Ohio farmers have come under increasing pressure from a mostly-urban legislature. In 2013, legislation was needlessly passed in Ohio to create a nutrient licensing program for fertilizer application.
Meanwhile, EPA continues to march forward with rulemaking to expand the regulatory jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and implement rigorous nutrient standards for all water bodies. Undoubtedly, EPA and other environmental activists groups will seek to obscure the facts and exploit this crisis to further their agenda.
Proposed actions don’t improve water quality or the environment. They simply add regulatory bureaucracy.
Farmers and ranchers must stand firm in opposition to these efforts. Join with thousands of other farmers and ranchers to help “Ditch the Rule!”
Jay Bragg is associate director of Commodity and Regulatory Activities for Texas Farm Bureau.