Asking for the federal government’s help is always a tough call to make. Once you open that door, it can be hard to shut.
Yet when it comes to the western side of Lake Erie, it appears to be time to raise the white flag. The annual algal bloom has arrived and judging by the deep shade of green this year that extends well into the Maumee River, Ohio is still losing the battle with toxic algae.
While many have suggested that having the lake declared “impaired” would be little more than symbolic, efforts made since toxic algae threatened Toledo’s municipal water supply have done relatively little to lessen the threat.
Some environmental groups have been pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to make the designation and pave the way for increased pollution regulations, but it usually takes political pressure to get the U.S. EPA to act.
On Tuesday, Toledo’s mayor joined others in calling for the impaired status after algal blooms continued to develop in the Maumee River near downtown.
The EPA says spring phosphorus loading in the Maumee River watershed is a major factor in Lake Erie algae production. The watershed, which includes parts of Michigan and Indiana, is dominated by farmland. Runoff is said to make up almost 90 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen entering the watershed.
The EPA considers a body of water impaired if any one of its uses, such as drinking or recreation, does not meet regulatory standards for water quality.
Some had hoped better monitoring of fertilizer runoff and voluntary agricultural guidelines that limit when and how much manure can be spread on farm fields to reduce runoff would have been enough to reduce the size of algal blooms, but recent heat and still water have resulted in significant algae buildup in the Maumee and other waterways.
An impairment designation for western Lake Erie would continue the negative image already associated the shallowest of the Great Lakes because of the algae problems, but bring a comprehensive approach to solving them. It would bring the EPA and a Clean Water Act into play, and the best science and experts to the table.
An algae-tainted lake discourages tourism and can bring a premature end to fishing, boating and swimming seasons each year. That costs the region millions in lost tourism dollars and puts municipal water systems at risk.
While federal involvement isn’t any guarantee that things will happen any quicker, just putting the lake on impaired status will add a higher sense of urgency to the situation. The problem clearly won’t go away on it own.
Michigan has already declared Lake Erie impaired, and Ohio and Indiana lawmakers should do the same.
It’s time to admit Ohio needs all available resources to help clean up the lake and the waterways that feed it. Gov. John Kasich and state and federal representatives should end their denial and join those already calling for impaired status, now that it’s clear the state can’t solve the problem on its own.
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