Protecting our water: Meeting held in Columbus to discuss algae problem

Protecting our water: Meeting held in Columbus to discuss algae problem

(Toledo News Now) - A meeting was held Tuesday morning in Columbus to discuss ways to prevent harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. Toledo News Now was the only Toledo-area station there for an inside look.

Eight panelists spoke to a crowd of over 200 people at the Ohio State University Tuesday. Farmers, researchers and economists were all present. The focus of the meeting: How to limit farm runoff from getting into our waterways.

Algae feeds on phosphorous. A state report says agricultural runoff along the Maumee River is the largest source of that phosphorous for Lake Erie. In addition, Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, which allows it to be warmer for longer, giving algae more time to breed and grow.

"If we don't reduce loading, the problem will expand and affect more cities in the future," said Dr. Jeff Reutter, director of OSU's Aquatics Ecosystem Program.

Reutter is the state's leading scientist on Lake Erie algae. He says he's seen this before – he was one of the scientists who helped restore Lake Erie during the 1960s and '70s. Reutter thinks making the lake healthy this time around will be an even bigger undertaking.

"Instead of dealing with 20 sewage treatment plants, you're dealing maybe with 8,000 farmers, and that's a greater challenge," he said.

But a comeback is possible. Algae forecast models show the phosphorous entering Lake Erie via the Maumee River needs to be cut by 40 percent. That's a lot to ask of local farmers.

"We want to make sure that the advice that we are giving is going to actually be helpful to them and to the water quality problems in Ohio," said Dr. Libby Dayton, a soil scientist at OSU.

While many farms are volunteering to limit runoff, there are those that are still vocal about regulation.

"We can no longer get this done taking voluntary approaches," said Kristy Meyer, of the Ohio Environmental Council. "We can no longer just pour money into this problem. We need some regulatory approaches, as well."

"It's expensive and it's going to take lots of people," said Steve Davis, from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. "And it's going to be very difficult to substantiate in the court of law if it gets to that point."

Many of the speakers expressed a belief that new research and education programs can help bridge the gap to keep regulation out of the fields.

"Up until 2012, up until the Toledo water crisis, the scientists have been talking for years that we needed to do more research and develop more technology, but the funding was never there," Davis said. "Now there's an impetus to fund some people to do the work we need to do to find the answers."

The good news: If the corner can be turned on phosphorous runoff and we can keep more of it out of Lake Erie, scientists believe the results can and will happen quickly.

"The retention time in western Lake Erie is 20-50 days," Reutter said. "If we reduce the load, this bloom, this problem goes away almost immediately."

The meeting in Columbus was not an attack on farmers. It was about everyone working together to find solutions. Farm Bureau leaders were there and the consensus was that farmers realize they still have room to cut back on runoff and they will move forward.

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