Ohio EPA explains its decision to list Lake Erie impaired

harmful algal bloom
Harmful algal bloom as seen from the research docks of The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie in 2013. Image by Jeff Reutter, courtesy of Stone Laboratory.

SALEM, Ohio — The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency continued its call for more regulations to improve water quality in Lake Erie and Ohio’s rivers during a public webinar April 25.

The event was a follow-up to the EPA’s March 22 draft of impaired waters in the state, which for the first time included the open waters of western Lake Erie.

Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said the state EPA had been working with the U.S. EPA for the past couple years to determine whether Lake Erie should be declared impaired, but both parties lacked an accurate way of assessing the lake.

The state EPA solicited area universities and water quality scientists, who devised a way of using satellite data to determine when the algal blooms resulted in an impairment. The state model divides the lake into seven assessment units, measured across multiple seasons and years, with a 20,000 cell per millimeter threshold for bloom density.

Considered impaired

If any two of six consecutive years are violated, then the western waters are considered impaired.

Butler said the EPA’s report on impaired waters “is giving us an opportunity to make some judgments about nutrients and also how we allocate resources across the surface water.”

The EPA released a second report, the Nutrient Mass Balance Study, April 16, which showed that ag-related discharge into the state’s rivers was not improving fast enough to meet the 40 percent phosphorus reduction by 2025.

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Farmers and farm groups are both concerned about the state’s direction to fight nutrient runoff, and say regulations should be science-based, and something the farmer can reasonably comply with.

“It does take a mandatory and a voluntary set of actions, and we have that now in the state of Ohio,” said Adam Sharp, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

Research conference

Sharp spoke during a stakeholders panel April 27, during Ohio State University’s annual research conference at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. He said farmers will consider adopt new ways of farming, but they need to see results for their efforts

“If you bring them good science, they will do good things with it,” he said.

Tom Fontana, director of research and education for the Ohio Soybean Council, said farmers still want to know the effect of legacy phosphorus, or nutrients which were applied years ago, but remain active in the soil. He said they also want to know how much is being lost through surface and tile drainage, and how particulate nutrients become dissolved.

“Our farmers want to do the right thing when it comes to environmental stewardship (and) they also want to stay in business.”

Low commodity prices and a late spring are adding to farmers’ worries this year. And some of the new equipment they are buying to help control nutrient placement, and the conservation practices they are installing in their fields can cost $100,000 or more per operation.

Finding solutions

The stakeholder panel reiterated the importance of cost-share funding and federal support, but said solutions have also been found that cost much less. In 2015, the Knox County Farm Bureau and Conservation District developed a mobile app known as “ONMARK,” which helps farmers track the ideal times to apply fertilizer and manure. This program was created with a $30,000 grant, and has been made available to farmers across the state.

“It (water quality) doesn’t always take millions of dollars,” Sharp said. “It just takes some creativity.”

Butler is proposing that the state legislature take up legislation that will give the EPA more jurisdiction over agricultural pollution. Specifically, he proposes that the state’s definition of agricultural pollution be expanded to include fertilizer, which would allow the Ohio EPA to issue a “watershed in distress” and focus on reducing nutrients in specific areas of the state.

The state EPA will continue to accept comments on its draft of impaired water bodies through May 4. Comments can be sent by email to epa.tmdl@epa.ohio.gov, or in writing to Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, OH 43216-1049, Attn: 303(d) comments.

Following public review and comments, a final report will be submitted to U.S. EPA.


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