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Toledo Crisis Prompts Debate On Algae In Public Water System

Ohio Public Radio

Debate continues on how to best cut down on how to cut down on toxins from algae blooms that get into public water systems. Farmers say they’re doing their part to cut down on phosphorus runoff that feeds the algae growth, but other groups say that’s not good enough. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

NATS: “We’re gonna drive over and just walk up to it.” 

As Kris Swartz gives me a tour of his land in Perrysburg you can tell right off the bat he’s not your average farmer—jokingly dubbing himself “the geeky farmer” as we hop into his Honda Element. 

Chow: “Not the typical farming vehicle?” 

Swartz: “No this is not—this is not. My theory is I have a big pickup that hogs gas and if I don’t have to drive it I might as well not.” 

And that’s the kind of sustainable approach Swartz likes to take with his crops.

NATS: “Is this going to be holding back any water?”

For example the device Swartz is showing me is called a controlled drainage structure which helps keep water on his land longer—more efficiently using the rain that falls.

Swartz: “The theory is it gives the plants more opportunity to take the phosphate out.” 

Phosphorus is a key buzzword in northwest Ohio and around the state right now after a toxin from algae resulted in a drinking water ban for half a million people in the Toledo area. Phosphorus is a main component found in fertilizer which can runoff into waterways and feed harmful algal blooms. 

The state is now providing more funding for farmers—encouraging them to install drainage control structures and other nutrient reduction tools. 

Zehringer: “It’s gonna be one of the multi-tiered approaches it’s not going to be the silver bullet but it’s certainly gonna keep more nutrients on your land.” 

That’s Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. He and other state officials are rolling out different policies in an effort to improve water quality. 

That includes the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which is making more than $150 million in grants and zero-interest loans available for public water systems. The money can be used to upgrade facilities and cut down on the amount of pollutants that come through wastewater plants. 

EPA Director Craig Butler admits these renovations can be a huge undertaking. 

Butler: “The idea of taking a loan of several hundred million dollars even at zero-percent interest is a significant burden to a community so we understand that this could still be a burden to some disadvantaged communities and we’re trying to find ways to alleviate that.”

While they applaud some of the latest efforts—environmental groups are calling on the state to take even bigger steps to stem algae growth.

The National Wildlife Federation wants Gov. John Kasich to declare Lake Erie’s western basin as a distressed water body—saying this will make it easier for policymakers to cut down on the toxic algae. 

The Ohio Environmental Council’s Adam Rissien (RISS-en) acknowledges the good work done by farmers on a voluntary basis, but says it’s time for the government to step in with tougher regulations. 

Rissien: “There’s just no way around it we have a lot of farmers and livestock operators that participate in conservation programs and they need to be commended but the reality is we can’t just rely on the good actors to fix this problem it’s not fair to them it’s not fair to the people who drink the tap water.” 

NATS: “We got five inches of rain Monday.” 

But back on the Swartz Farm—Kris thinks government mandates would be going too far, and says that farmers want to find ways to cut down on nutrient runoff. 

Swartz: “I think people just don’t understand our business. I hear—some people say we dump fertilizer on—we don’t dump fertilizer on we apply it. It’s expensive. If you’re keeping the phosphorus on your ground it’s an economic benefit to you.” 

Legislators held public meetings in northwest Ohio to hear comments and concerns about algae growth in the area. The House will also conduct a study on the problem to find other ways of addressing the issue. 

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