Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Panel Focuses On Lake Erie Algal Blooms; Stakeholders Call For More Research, Monitoring Funds

As summer approaches and thousands of Ohioans are expected to visit Lake Erie for boating and other recreational activities, environmental, conservation, education and other officials briefed senators Wednesday on the current state of algal blooms in the great lake.  Addressing the Senate General Government Finance Subcommittee as part of a panel, representatives from the Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio State University Extension and Sea Grant and Stone Lab discussed the history of the algae problem, efforts currently underway and potential future changes.  They also stressed that stakeholders and the related agencies have reached an unprecedented point of communication, data sharing and collaboration on the issue.
Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Bob Peterson praised the collaboration and said witness recommendations to boost funding for enhanced monitoring efforts is something that needs to be looked at and "has great value."  "What I heard today is that there's a tremendous amount of monitoring already being done. Now there's always stuff more we could and should do if money becomes available and that's the challenge for us in the Finance Committee - balancing that budget," he said in an interview.

Prior to panel testimony, Sen. Randy Gardner said he hopes the subcommittee "will conclude that Ohio is beginning to move in the right direction to protect Lake Erie but that much work remains to be done."  Mr. Gardner stressed that additional funds will be necessary to help, adding that it's not about how much the state spends, but rather how it can effectively use dollars to address this problem. He told lawmakers the issue is not about just about agriculture and will take a lot of effort to bring a lot of people together.   "Let me also assert that we must engage in a multi-faceted strategy that will include the agricultural community, residential and commercial lands, municipal systems, dredging practices and cooperation from our friends from that 'state up north,'" he said in a statement. "In this spirit, clearly we can and must maintain a strong agricultural economy while working to clean up Lake Erie. We can do both."

According to Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab Director Jeff Reutter, Lake Erie's shallow depth and southern location in relation to the other Great Lakes make it an attractive location for the nuisance and dangerous algal blooms.  For decades, he said, the lake has struggled with the issue with things coming to a head in the '60s and '70s before water quality standards and monitoring were put into place. Despite drops in algal blooms in the aftermath of the regulations, its prevalence has gone up particularly over the past decade, Mr. Reutter said.   The source of today's algae can be partially attributed to phosphorus from sewage treatment plants, lawn fertilizer runoff, water treatment plans, agriculture and septic tanks, he offered, as well as climate change and an increased frequency in severe storms.  Mr. Reutter said he expects improvement in the lake because of phosphorus removal from over-the-counter fertilizer, a majority of farmers accepting partial responsibility for the issue and farm bureau support for phosphorus reduction, as well as other factors.

In order to address the current algal bloom problem, Brian Hall of OEPA, told lawmakers that the state "will need to make some significant changes" in terms of agricultural management and nutrient removal technologies.  Mr. Hall pointed to six strategy recommendations that are being finalized in OEPA's Ohio Nutrient Reduction Strategy as potential ways to address the issue. They include: focusing nutrient reduction efforts on specific watersheds; establishing stream load reduction goals; ensuring that point source and nonpoint source reductions are effective; gauging the effectiveness of reductions; reporting activities to the public and creating nutrient water quality criteria.

ODNR's Karl Gebhardt added that his department, along with OEPA and the U.S. Geological Survey, are proposing to install an expanded water quality monitoring program for the Maumee Watershed with the remaining $550,000 Health Lake Erie Fund appropriation.  This installation, combined with research and monitoring efforts Heidelberg University and Ohio State University have undertaken, would allow Ohio to better document and manage the relationship between agricultural nutrient management and the water quality in the Maumee River and Lake Erie, the witness said.  "We can ensure Ohio tax dollars are being spent wisely to improve water quality," he stressed. "That is a benefit for everyone."  Aside from this, Mr. Gebhardt said ODNR and the Department of Agriculture plan to work with lawmakers on a new bill that would put other Agricultural Nutrient and Water Quality Working Group recommendations into place that promote "effective yet non-burdensome initiatives to help address nutrient issues for agriculture."  "Together, we will provide the non-agricultural community with the confidence that water quality in Lake Erie or anywhere in Ohio is being taken seriously by all of us that are entrusted with the stewardship of Ohio's natural resources and viability of Ohio's agriculture," he added.

Meanwhile, Greg LaBarge, of OSU Extension, said he is "confident" that farmers and the agricultural industry understand the issue regarding nutrient losses that occur during agricultural production and the impact it has on water quality.  He continued that Ohio farmers are using best management practices, including soil testing, but that the state needs to provide them "with other solutions that fit the site-specific needs of individual fields at the highest risk of contribution."

Sen. John Eklund asked whether a change in agricultural practices is being considered. Both Mr. Reutter and Mr. Gebhardt acknowledged that it is something they're examining, but added that they're "not entirely sure" as to what the best and proper practices would be.  "The challenge we have is we can't sit around and wait for 15 years for data, so by continuing with research and then implementing the practices we've done in at least five counties already, we feel they're the best available at this point in time."

Looking at the overlap of water sources to Lake Erie among various states, Sen. Tim Schaffer, meanwhile, asked panel members what role other states, like Indiana, have played in water quality assurance efforts.  According to Mr. Gebhardt, Ohio has been collaborating with Indiana and Michigan on the issue, as well as working with regional partners, on collecting information on nutrient loads entering the lake.

In response to Sen. Eklund's question regarding global efforts to address this issue, Mr. Reutter added that his lab has been looking at research being done in the US, primarily, as it leads the world on this front.  "The most important point here is that our problem in Ohio, we're the poster child for this problem in the U.S.," he said. "You don't find other watershed the size of the Great Lakes having the same problems."

Mr. Hall, responding to Sen. Jon Schiavoni, added that OEPA is responsible for developing water quality standards and reporting them to federal officials. He said, however, that the relationship between the agency and ODNR has never "been better."

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