The Blade, Dec. 12, 2015 | by Tom Henry

Lake Erie algae still hot symposium topic

PORT CLINTON — It’s December — albeit an unusually warm one — and more than 16 months have passed since the August, 2014 water crisis paralyzed Toledo-area businesses and the metro region’s nearly 500,000 water customers during a peak summer weekend.

But if Friday’s turnout at the Lake Erie Improvement Association’s annual symposium is any indication, western Lake Erie’s chronic algae problem is still a hot topic.

Held at the Catawba Island Club, a boaters’ mecca that while gorgeous is slightly off the beaten path, a standing-room-only crowd of about 170 people packed the clubhouse and listened to a succession of speakers over four hours.

Organizer Sandy Bihn said it was the group’s largest conference.

State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) did not have a speech prepared, but sounded almost like he was running a pep rally when delivering a few brief remarks from the podium.

The turnout, he said, shows there is still “a tremendous assemblage of people who are concerned about Ohio's greatest natural asset.”

Legislatively, Mr. Gardner said, there’s “no question there is more to do.”

He said he wants 2016 to be the year Ohio seriously considers passing a statewide bond issue to generate money for protecting Lake Erie and stepping up the pace of badly needed improvements to farms, wastewater treatment plants, and other pollution sources.

Such a bond issue’s goals are in their infancy stages, now being brainstormed by a task force that includes Mr. Gardner and other legislators.

“We owe it our best to help promote this special asset,” he said.

Although speakers covered a wide range of topics, from economic losses algae causes to the science of phosphorus that feeds it, the event’s second half was devoted to issues of contention between activists and state regulators: the Total Maximum Daily Load process for protecting large bodies of water and problems with controlling manure generated by large livestock facilities.

Usually reserved for rivers, ponds, and smaller bodies of water, TMDL is a checks-and-balances system that requires government officials to trace pollution to its sources and investigate, resulting in specific crackdowns on the worst offenders.

To do so requires water bodies to be classified as “impaired” or “distressed,” a tag the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has said the Kasich administration wants to avoid because of how it could affect Lake Erie branding efforts.

Ohio’s largest body of water now under the TMDL system is Grand Lake St. Marys; the nation’s largest is Chesapeake Bay. Activists have been seeking it for the western Lake Erie basin, which includes parts of Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana.

Verna Harrison, a Maryland consultant with nearly 40 years of experience on Chesapeake Bay issues, said that region “really desperately thought we weren't going to need this,” then found out it was unavoidable.

“How does someone know how to fix a problem without even knowing what the problems are?” she asked.

She said the Chesapeake Bay effort has resulted in “some really strong foundations to help move the ball down the court,” including key support from the business community.

Greg Baneck, a conservationist in Wisconsin’s Outagamie County, also discussed TMDL efforts in Wisconsin’s Green Bay.

A presentation about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations was made by Pam Taylor, a retired Lenawee County teacher and member of a family that has farmed in southeastern Michigan since 1837.

She gave an overview of a report issued Nov. 19 by the Less=More Coalition of citizen groups, which found CAFOs in the western Lake Erie watershed have received more than $16.8 million in direct payments, cost-shares, and other subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2008.

Ms. Taylor said the coalition filed more than 300 Freedom of Information Act requests to get data for its report.

The coalition said it found the western Lake Erie area has 146 livestock facilities housing 12 million animals. The 630 million gallons of manure they produce each year is roughly the waste equivalent of the city of Boston, Ms. Taylor said.