The western tail of Lake Erie brims with life. Warm, shallow waters along the Ohio-Michigan border teem with bass, bluegill, and walleye, sustaining a billion-dollar fishing industry. Millions of people from Cleveland to Detroit draw their drinking water from this nook of the lake. Yet every summer, nasty blooms of toxic algae put the entire system at risk.
Scummy blankets of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, have appeared at alarming scales since the early 2000s, killing plants and fish and straining water treatment facilities. Four years ago, algal blooms were so bad that residents of Toledo were told not to drink or use tap water for three days. Scientists say they know the primary source of the blooms: phosphorus and nitrogen that wash off farms in northwest Ohio and flow into the lake. What’s less clear is how policymakers and farmers will act to stem the nutrient pollution.
A high-profile effort by the state’s Republican governor, John Kasich, to tackle toxic algae is in limbo after months of contentious meetings, political infighting, and strong resistance from the state’s agricultural interests. The delays mean that his successor, Mike DeWine, another Republican, will be responsible for carrying out or discarding Kasich’s vision.
Kasich is pushing to declare eight watersheds in northwest Ohio as “distressed,” a maneuver that would enable regulators to adopt rules for curtailing agricultural runoff across some 7,000 farms. This summer, he issued an executive order that tasks a state commission with approving the “distressed” designations. But that commission recently decided to put off a decision until February — after Kasich leaves office.
If upheld, the order would start by requiring farmers to lay out detailed strategies for applying chemical fertilizers and spreading manure.
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