Well, when roughly half a million people in and around Ohio’s fourth largest city can’t shower, wash clothes and dishes or drink their tap water for two days, the politicians start to pay attention to the annual environmental catastrophe known as the Lake Erie algal bloom.
If you’ve followed the Ohio Farmers Union’s take on water quality and agriculture’s role, you’ll know that OFU acknowledges the science that places agriculture at the top of the list of contributors of nutrients into Lake Erie and other surface waters and we are committed to having agriculture be a major part of the solution.
In reviewing the State’s response to our water quality problems, we believe there is one segment of nutrient management that has been ignored by the decision-makers in Columbus. That’s the use of manure from large animal feeding operations. Ohio is home to many thousands of these industrial scale livestock facilities. Only the 200 largest of which are managed under oversight of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). Manure from confined animal feeding operations supplies a significant proportion of the nutrients that Ohio farmers use to boost crop production.
We believe that there are serious loopholes in the permitting system for the 200 largest operations and a woeful lack of regulatory oversight for the remaining (nearly 4000) operations. For whatever reason, manure was left off the table during recent deliberations of S.B. 150, the so-called “nutrient management” bill.
S.B. 150 is now law and the upshot is that farmers all over Ohio will be required to become certified to apply chemical fertilizers. OFU remained neutral on this bill because it established a broad, untargeted regulatory burden on users of chemical fertilizer, while manure was left out of the bill. We believe any regulations should be targeted to areas where problems exist and should be inclusive of all nutrient sources, including manure. Early drafts of what would become the bill had language that was broad enough to include manure as a “fertilizer.” Big Ag won the day and had the bill re-written to exclude manure.
This year’s algal bloom in the western basin of Lake Erie may not end up being the worst ever in terms of size, but it has produced alarming levels of the toxin microcystin. This toxin caused 2,000 residents of Carroll Twp. to go without township water service for 12 days in 2013 and the recent two-day advisory for users of City of Toledo water to not drink or in some cases even bathe in the water.
Manure contains phosphorous an element that in high concentrations is linked to algal blooms. There is a concentration of large-scale animal feeding operations in and around the Maumee River watershed. The Maumee is the largest tributary into Lake Erie and in fact the largest in all the Great Lakes. It just stands to reason that the use of manure as a nutrient should be considered when state officials act to solve water quality problems in Lake Erie.
To be sure, there are other issues as well. Aging water treatment infrastructure maintained by cities and other local governments in the region needs to be upgraded or rebuilt. The entire blame for Lake Erie’s woes should not be laid at the feet of farmers. On the other hand, OFU remains supportive of targeted, reasonable regulation to hold agriculture accountable for its role. We just shouldn’t hold some types of farmers accountable to state rules while other nutrient users are ignored.