SALEM, Ohio — Three state agency directors announced new funding and conservation efforts to help protect Lake Erie and the state’s drinking water, during an Aug. 14 call with reporters.
David Daniels, director of the agriculture department, Craig Butler of Ohio EPA and James Zehringer of ODNR, made the announcement from Perrysburg, just minutes from the city of Toledo, where a week earlier scientists had discovered an unsafe level the toxin micocystin, resulting in a ban on Toledo’s drinking water.
Water was determined safe to drink Aug. 4, just two days after the ban, but the event drew nationwide attention to Ohio’s water quality issue and more calls for action.
Highlighting the directors’ announcement is $150 million in no-interest loans for municipal water plants. Of that amount, $100 million will be made available to local wastewater systems for equipment and facilities that reduce phosphorus and other pollutants.
The other $50 million will be used for zero-interest loans to improve drinking water plants.
Butler said the no-interest loans will slash as much as 3 percent interest that municipalities were paying before, which will be a big savings.
He and the other two Ohio directors met recently with state directors in Michigan and Indiana, as well as federal agencies, to discuss the regional and national concerns for Lake Erie, which is bordered by four states, plus Canada, and receives some of its water from Indiana.
The directors also announced $1 million in new grants to help public water providers obtain the laboratory equipment they need to test for microycystin and other toxins.
The Ohio EPA is also working to make sure all testing procedures and equipment is universally approved by the state, the U.S. EPA and the testing equipment manufacturer.
Uniform testing will be a key part in producing uniform results, and determining actions based on those results. Lake Erie provides drinking water for up to 2.6 million people, including residents, businesses and tourists.
Additionally, the directors announced a new, $1.25 million Lake Erie nutrient reduction program that will help farmers implement best-management practices that reduce nutrient runoff from fields, improve water quality and combat the harmful algal blooms.
The program will be run through the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative, which has already helped protect more than 40,000 acres in northwest Ohio.
The program will target the use of cover crops and controlled water drainage structures, which control how much and how fast water moves through the field tiles. Both of these practices proved beneficial during the recently completed Ohio Phosphorus II Task Force, and are being continued.
Cover crops help to hold nutrients in place, and also reduce the amount of nutrients a farmer has to apply in the spring. Controlled drainage structures similarly reduce runoff, while also helping to keep soil nutrients in place.
“This is a continuing effort,” Zehringer said. “This isn’t going to end all, but everything we’re announcing on the ag side is going to improve water quality and reduce nutrient runoff.”
Zehringer said the new program starts immediately and will include about 30 counties in the Lake Erie watershed. Farmers in counties nearest the lake are advised to call their local SWCD, to get signed up.
Kris Swartz, vice president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, recently had five controlled drainage structures installed at his own farm.
“They’re all holding back water — up to two, to two-and-a-half feet of water,” he said. “I’ve made that water more available to my crop and my crop is using more of that phosphorus that would be going into the stream.”
The directors also announced that the Ohio Board of Regents will make up to $2 million available for Ohio institutions to conduct further research into the life cycle of algal blooms.
Ohio’s farmers and commodity groups have pledged more than $1 million of their own money over the past couple years, for additional research.
The Ohio Farm Bureau applauded the directors’ plan and also the funding to help municipalities with upgrades.
“Ohio farmers are committed to doing their part to address our water quality challenges, and we’re glad to see the governor’s multifaceted approach includes $150 million in investments for upgrades to drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure and $2 million in additional research,” OFBF said in a statement.