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EPA cuts would drain the future of Lake Erie

Mar 22, 2017

Last night I drove almost a hundred miles into Ohio to preside over a discussion with huge implications for Michigan. The topic was the future of Lake Erie, the warmest and shallowest of the Great Lakes and a major source of drinking water for 11 million people.

Three years ago you may remember that the water for Toledo and part of southern Michigan was suddenly poisoned by toxins called microcystin, given off by dense blooms of blue-green algae that appear in the lake every summer.

For several days in August, tap water was unsafe to drink, even if one boiled it. People rushed to Detroit to buy bottled water. This didn’t happen again during the next two summers, and scientists and public health officials have taken new precautions since.

But nobody who knows anything about it is under any illusion that this won’t happen again. It could easily be worse next time.

The problem is phosphorous leaching into the water, both from fertilizer and from massive amounts of manure produced by farm animals, some of them in immense CAFOs, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as factory farms.

How much factory farms are to blame is debatable. An owner of one such farm, plus several of the environmentalists on the panel, told me that the factory farms, which have 2,500 animals or more, are in fact heavily scrutinized and regulated, and may be less of a problem than other operations that are just slightly smaller.

But there is an enormous problem. The forum I was moderating, which was sponsored by the Ohio Farmers Union and a Toledo peace and justice center, had a definite purpose: Can farmers voluntarily take actions to reduce the amount of phosphorous going into the lake by 40 percent?

That, the organizers said, is the bare minimum needed.

The farmers in the audience had various opinions. Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, the retired director of a major laboratory at Ohio State, has been studying the problem intensely for more than forty years. He noted that Lake Erie was nationally notorious for similar pollution back in the 70s and 80s, but was then cleaned up.

Now, however, the problem is harder to solve. The earlier crisis was caused largely by improper disposal of sewage. Eradicating the effects of the chemical byproducts of farming will be much harder. 

This conference was planned long before President Trump released a budget calling for, among other things, massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and an end to all funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. If those cuts become law, what will that mean?

Dr. Reutter, whom I know and is anything but an alarmist, was succinct. Without this, he said, Lake Erie will no longer be able to produce safe drinking water for the eleven million people it now serves. What progress has been made at staving off environmental disaster here has been largely due to the initiative, which up to now has had strong bipartisan support.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the science of all this. But people who are agree that if we mess up the lakes beyond redemption, we really will be doomed. We need to make sure that’s something we - and those in power - never forget.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.