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Lake Erie's last best hope

Jul 7, 2016

Yesterday, I talked about how Lake Erie is endangered by pollution from factory farms, which dump hundreds of millions of gallons of animal waste onto the ground every year.

This is far too much for the soil to absorb, and a considerable amount gets into the lake. There, the nitrates and phosphorous it contains help spur huge toxic algae blooms.


Besides being unsightly, these blooms also contain poisonous cyanobacteria. Two years ago, that meant half a million people in the Toledo area were unable to safely drink their tap water for two days.

Some think it is all but inevitable that the water will turn dangerously toxic again – and next time, it could affect more consumers and take longer before it again became safe.

Were that to begin happening on a regular basis, it could be environmentally and economically devastating to the entire region. But what can we do about it?

Pam Taylor, a full-time volunteer with a group called Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, lives on a farm that her family has owned since 1901.

Protecting and strengthening the area’s culture and economy is vitally important to her. She hates factory farms, otherwise known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, not just because of the threat they pose to Lake Erie.

She believes that the huge agricultural subsidies they receive “drive the smaller farmers who are practicing good animal husbandry and sustainable, diversified crop production out of business, because what (the family farmers) are doing isn’t subsidized.”

I asked her if anything could be done to prevent the factory farms from contributing to the poisoning of Lake Erie. “There are only two things that work to solve the pollution problem,” she told me.

She said we need to require municipal-grade waste treatment systems at the facilities themselves, and also make them switch to pasture-based grazing systems that use proper composting and manure storage techniques.

Unfortunately, that would cost the factory farms money that their lobbyists work hard to see that they don’t have to spend.

Trying to get the politicians to do something about this has been endlessly frustrating, she told me, adding “the ag lobby has such a tremendous hold in Michigan at all levels of government.”

Pam Taylor told me that she always thought it would take a major tragedy to wake up the policymakers and the media.

However, she sighed that while the drinking water scare did get attention, today “nothing substantial is changing at the political level in Ohio, and after Flint, I have almost no hope that Michigan elected officials will pay attention to this issue.”

If that’s the case, I wondered why she was still fighting so hard.

“What would you do?” she asked me. “For me, these are my people, my friends and neighbors, and some of them are being hurt badly.”

And even if she loses, she reflects that “all the big important battles,” whether against slavery or for civil rights,” had to start somewhere.” Whether Pam Taylor realizes it or not, someone is watching.

On July 20, she will be awarded the Petoskey Prize for environmental leadership by the Michigan Environmental Council.

They accurately described her as “fearless, resolute and humble.” They might have added, Lake Erie’s last best hope.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's 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.