By Matt Reese
The monumental problem of phosphorus fed algal blooms in Lake Erie creates conflict between two powerful forces: food and agriculture versus drinking water
for 5 million people and a $10 billion recreation industry. Ohio agriculture continues to sit and wait (maybe somewhat nervously) on the inevitable announcement from Governor John Kasich concerning the 35-page summary resulting from the Phosphorus Task Force investigation into the recent surge of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.
“The Phosphorus Task Force started back in August. The Governor wanted a panel on this issue and there were 125 different groups represented,” said Karl Gebhardt, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Soil and Water Resources at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference (CTTC) in Ada. “The report has been submitted to the Governor and we feel pretty certain that he will be accepting most of the components of that plan. The goals of the working group were to identify research gaps, as we do have some gaps out there. We’re going to be building the car as we go down the road with this because we don’t have 10 or 15 years to work on researching this problem.”
The task force also sought to identify the land use and nutrient management practices that could solve the problem and develop incentives and/or regulations to facilitate the implementation of those practices.
“We don’t want to penalize the farmers who are already doing the right things,” Gebhardt said. “Communication with farmers is important. We need to make sure farmers know the right things to do. We also want to make sure ag continues to be a viable industry. We don’t want to add regulations and costs for those who are already doing the right things.”
Legislators, environmental groups and consumers from around the country are closely following this process on the northern shore of Ohio and the related watersheds.
“We’re hitting two primary watersheds there in the Western Basin of Lake Erie – the Sandusky and Maumee. We’re going to be working with landowners and monitoring the impacts we are having,” Gebhardt said. “There are a lot of things coming down the road. We are not going to eat the whole elephant in one bite, but we have a lot of people watching us on this and we are moving forward.”
The problem is such that something needs to be done, but Ohio agriculture needs to make sure the resulting solutions do not place an undue burden on agriculture.
“There are a lot of things we have to think about and be worried about with this,” said Larry Antosch, with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “The public wants to see blue water, green pastures, and plentiful, affordable food and we have to find the right balance for those things. Politicians want black and white policy measures. They have constituents screaming in their ear, ‘Fix it yesterday!’ but we need as much information as we can get before we make any policy decisions on this.”
The bottom line is that, even with the recent investigation, there are still many questions.
“The Maumee River annual loading of dissolved reactive phosphorus steadily dropped until mid-90s and has sharply risen since then and we don’t know why. There is no smoking gun,” Antosch said. “We don’t have the answers yet, but it is hard from a political standpoint to tell people that we need 5 or 10 years to research this problem.”
The report from the Governor, which could be released at any time, will further shape the debate, but until then, Antosch can only speculate about the long term implications for agricultural fertilizer applications.
“Possible recommendations could include no winter application, no broadcast applications, certification to apply nutrients, and even a moratorium on new tile installation,” he said. “So what does this all mean? There has been a lot of discussion on this, but we could be moving away from voluntary and toward mandatory. We need to watch this to maintain our ability to farm.”