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Lake Erie and Phosphorous: Déjà vu all Over Again

lake erieOhio lawmakers tried to legislate away the dangerous algae blooms in June of this year, but it appears it was too late.

News this week of Toledo’s drinking water woes highlighted what has become an intractable problem: the amount of phosphorous heading into Lake Erie.

Lake Erie was infamously foul in the early 1970’s when lawmakers targeted sewage treatment plants and legislated the use of different chemicals, markedly decreasing the phosphorous output into the Lake. Phosphorous was contributing to clusters of algae, called algae blooms, which were choking off the lake, producing toxins that in turn killed species, endangered drinking water and made the lake a turn-off for tourists. The 1970’s efforts brought great success and the Lake truly was revived.

And then phosphorous reared its ugly head again. This time, the contaminant wasn’t necessarily a local concern, and the villain wasn’t large manufacturing. Now the phosphorous that has invaded Lake Erie has been traveling from the shores of the Maumee River, where the phosphorous has been the product of runoff from fertilizers used in farms.

So, in June of 2014, the Ohio legislature enacted small reforms, including training farmers on using less phosphorous and requiring certification prior to applying commercial fertilizers containing phosphorous. The law will not take effect until 2017 and is not aimed at enforcing a reduction of phosphorous use, but in preventing its runoff into waterways, particularly those that feed into Lake Erie. The law also excluded a clause banning the use of manure on fields that are covered with snow or ice, a practice that environmental activists maintain contributes to phosphorous-based runoff.

So, that was the plan in 2014.

Fast forward to this week when the Lake hit a crisis. The weather pattern resulted in a collection of algae blooms in Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes. The resultant blooms impacted the drinking water, cutting off the taps to Toledo and smaller communities.

What new regulation will need to be proposed to prevent future water crises, and more importantly, to return to the halcyon days of the 1980’s at the shores of Lake Erie?

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