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Toledo finally cares now that the river is green, but will farmers?

Sep 29, 2017

Drive just a few miles south of the Ohio border, and you’ll find yourself on a bridge over the Maumee River, which runs through downtown Toledo on its way to Lake Erie.

Right now, the river is an oddly beautiful emerald green, as if it had been dyed to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day six months early. Except it isn’t dye, it’s algae. The Maumee flows into Lake Erie, which has been hit with one of the largest algal blooms on record, one that stretches all the way to Canada, as well as for many miles west.

And any thoughts about how beautiful this all is are likely to be driven away the moment you encounter the horrible dank sewage smell, or notice the dying fish on the shoreline.

“It’s just gross out there,” The Toledo Blade’s award-winning environmental writer Tom Henry told me last night. The huge clot of algae is much bigger than three years ago, when toxic microcystin bacteria in the algae rendered the water unsafe to drink or even bathe in for several days. Now, Toledo residents have been scrambling to buy bottled water again, though so far, the city has been assuring them the water is safe.

Tom Henry and his family aren’t drinking it either. “What I do is fill up gallon jugs at Kroger or Meijer,” he told me. “Cheaper than bottled water and tastes better, too.”

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, who is in the midst of a tough reelection battle, now supports an effort to have the western basin of the lake declared impaired by the federal government.

“There’s something very wrong with our country when our rivers and lakes turn green,” she wrote to President Donald Trump.

There’s no mystery about what causes the algae blooms. Huge amounts of phosphorus running off into the lake from fertilizer dumped on fields, and manure, much of it from the huge factory farms, some of which produce the equivalent of the city of Lansing's waste every day. But instead of being treated as human waste is, farmers keep it in huge lagoons to use eventually as fertilizer.

Sometimes they dump it on still-frozen ground in the spring, from where it is easily washed into Erie, the warmest of the Great Lakes.

Toledo’s mayor says,

“We need real change in our agricultural practices, so we can protect and restore our water.”

But farmers have resisted that. Six months ago, I presided over a forum in rural Tontogany, Ohio, designed to get local farmers to voluntarily reduce the amount of phosphates they dump on the fields by 40 percent.

They listened respectfully, but I see no sign anything changed. This was soon after the new Trump administration announced plans to cut Environmental Protection Agency funding by 31 percent. One environmental scientist on the panel said if that happens, it’s farewell to clean and safe drinking water for 11 million people.

With luck, this current bloom will dissipate; people will wash off the slime and try to pretend things are back to normal. But they won’t be. It would be nice if we got serious about irrevocably damaging the lakes before people die, but that would take foresight, willingness to reach logical conclusions, discipline and sacrifice.

Don’t you wish that we, as a people, were there?

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.