Lake Erie

Should metropolitan Toledo and Cleveland be designated CSO Watersheds in Distress?

By Matt Reese

There is no question that nutrient contributions from agriculture are a piece of the water quality puzzle in Lake Erie. But, it is also a certainty that agriculture is not the only contributor.

Earlier this year, reported research clearly linking harmful algal blooms in Florida’s St. Lucie Estuary and human waste. In a yearlong study, water samples provided multiple lines of evidence that human wastewater from septic led to high nitrogen concentrations in the estuary and the awful algal blooms. (Note, for the salt water in the estuary, nitrogen is the key nutrient for harmful algal blooms. In freshwater, the key nutrient is phosphorus). Human manure has significant quantities of both nutrients, to the tune of about 10 pounds of nitrogen and more than a pound of phosphorus per person per year.

From “It has long been thought that the algal blooms found in Lake Okeechobee, which are caused by pollution such as runoffs from farms, were solely responsible for driving the blooms and their toxins in the St. Lucie Estuary,” said Brian E. Lapointe, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a research professor at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch, who recently presented these findings at the ninth U.S. National Harmful Algal Bloom Conference. “We wanted to investigate the role of on-site septic systems, which have previously been overlooked.”

Big rain events directly cause agricultural nutrient losses, but also continue to overwhelm connected stormwater and sewage systems and lead to overflows of diluted raw, unregulated, untreated sewage flowing into the rivers, streams and Lake Erie from urban centers. For example, on Aug. 7, 2018 Cleveland 19 News reported on Tuesday night’s torrential rainfall caused an overflow of raw sewage and stormwater into Lake Erie.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District posted a public advisory urging swimmers, especially children, the elderly, and those with health conditions, to avoid entering the water at Edgewater Beach.

Raw sewage began overflowing at the beach just before midnight on Monday and was confirmed by sewer district officials before 1 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“Our region has experienced many strong storms in recent years, an ongoing trend that we will see more of in the future,” said Frank Greenland, Director of Watershed Programs with the NEORSD. “CSOs, along with flooding and streambank erosion, all impact water quality throughout our region. Fortunately, the Sewer District is developing a regional solution to manage these sizeable issues and protect our region’s greatest natural resource: Lake Erie.”

The NEORD says the volume of sewage and stormwater overflows into Lake Erie has decreased from 9 billion gallons to 4.5 billion gallons. The sewer department’s improvements to Northeast Ohio’s infrastructure have helped with the combined sewer overflow discharges.

As of September of 2017, Ohio had approximately 1,138 permitted Combined Sewer Overflows in 72 remaining communities ranging from small, rural villages to large metropolitan areas (including Cleveland and Toledo), according to the Ohio EPA. In many cases, efforts are underway to address the costly (and super gross) issue of diluted raw sewage dumping into the Lake Erie Watershed. The Toledo Waterways Initiative program, for example, is in the process of working on 45 separate projects over the course of 18 years at a total estimated cost of $527 million to eliminate 650 million gallons of untreated sewage from entering waterways per year by 2020. This is an 80% reduction from before the program started.

This is great progress, but at time when a group called Toledoans for Safe Water has secured enough signatures to get a proposal on the 2018 fall election ballot that would give citizen groups legal standing to sue major polluters on behalf of Lake Erie, I wonder if these proactive, voluntary efforts are really enough. After all, we need clean water in Lake Erie NOW!

To get an immediate improvement, maybe we should look into more regulations for the urban dwellers of Toledo, Cleveland and other CSO communities in the Lake Erie watershed. There are folks out there pushing for “Watershed in Distress” designations for agricultural areas, so maybe in serious situations (such as in Toledo in Cleveland) residents could be required to comply with the following:

  • No outdoor human or pet nutrient applications between Dec. 15 and March 1 without prior agency approval; before and after these dates, applications of human or pet nutrients on frozen ground or ground covered in more than 1-inch of snow may occur only if removed, injected into the ground or incorporated within 24 hours of surface application.
  • No toilet flushing if the local weather forecast shows more than a 50% chance that precipitation would exceed one-half inch of rain in the 24 hours after the nutrient application (if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown put the lid down).
  • In case of a long stretch of inclement weather, any property owners must ensure a minimum of 120 days of manure storage and keep records of manure storage volumes.
  • Any single entity producing more than 350 tons or 150,000 gallons of nutrients per year must have an approved Nutrient Management Plan that addresses the methods, amount, form, and timing of all nutrient applications.

Of course, this set of regulations will not be easy to pass through the legislature, so I suggest that Gov. Kasich put together an executive order to make it happen before the November elections. After all, he is the Governor and he can do whatever he wants. Plus, these measures will be a HUGE political victory, as they will undoubtedly eliminate harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie by 2019. The Kasich Administration executive order could really solve a number of problems from our urban CSO watershed neighbors. Imagine the implications for a Kasich presidential run with a clean Lake Erie!

On second thought, this all seems very costly and onerous to actually enact (imagine the paperwork). Maybe, instead, we could give the proactive efforts like the Toledo Waterways Initiative and other wastewater handling projects in the Lake Erie Watershed a little time to work before we pursue such aggressive regulatory measures. It seems this monumental challenge may require a bit more patience.

I guess the only question that remains is: if that Toledo ballot initiative passes this fall, will Toledoans for Safe Water be able to sue themselves?


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  1. Kari Gerwin, TMACOG

    We don’t need to look to Florida for solid research on the sources of nutrients causing harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie’s western basin. According to information from Dr. Chris Winslow, Director of Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Lab, citing information from Ohio EPA’s most recent Nutrient Mass Balance Study, industrial and municipal waste water treatment plants contribute less than 9% of phosphorous. Combined sewer overflows in the Maumee River contribute less than 1%, leaking septic systems around 3%, leaving roughly 87% of Phosphorous coming from nonpoint sources. Those nonpoint sources in the Lake Erie watershed are largely agriculture.

    I assume the writer was not serious about proposed regulation but straining to make a point about the difficulty farmers would face complying with proposed regulation. The suggestion that the state of Ohio regulate pet waste and toilet flushing does solicit responses ranging from chuckles to wholehearted agreement by some in the agricultural community. This sentiment, however, is based in misinformation and in no way offers an effective solution. Is human waste a problem? Absolutely. Is human waste regulated? Absolutely. Due to the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, local governments are required to meet effluent limitations for wastewater treatment plants. Are local governments required to reduce combined sewer overflows that release raw sewage into waterways? Absolutely. For example, due to a consent decree with the U.S. EPA, the City of Toledo was forced to invest $527M over the last 16 years to prevent 80% (650 million gallons) of untreated sewage from entering waterways. Cities across our region and across the country are doing the same. Is there more that can be done to address human waste impacts on water quality? Absolutely. For starters, we can better fund our county health districts to inspect and offer maintenance solutions for septic systems with grant programs to offset the cost for low income homeowners.

    To use the author’s puzzle piece metaphor – TMACOG agrees that we all hold a piece of the nutrient reduction puzzle. Pet owners can do their part by picking up their pet’s waste, owners of septic systems need to maintain their systems, municipalities must continue progress to prevent raw sewage from entering waterways. With non-point sources holding 87 of the 100 puzzle pieces, it is time to begin serious discussions about regulatory and voluntary measures that need to be taken by the agriculture industry if we are going to see real reductions in harmful algal blooms that threaten drinking water, public health, and local economies. – Kari Gerwin, Director of Water Quality Planning, TMACOG.

    • Kari, first, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful reply. We are mostly in agreement. You are correct in pointing out the 87% P load coming from non-point sources. Of that, certainly a significant component is agriculture. But, I ask you, how much? Are the agricultural nutrient contributions coming from surface run-off, tile run-off, manure applications or commercial fertilizer? Are the farm fields tilled, no-till, or some degree of conservation tilled? Which crops in the rotation are most beneficial in reducing nutrient losses? Which are the worst? Are the nutrients for the farm being applied on the surface or underground? How much of the nutrient load is being contributed from the soil in the stream banks, creek beds and the water itself from supplies deposited in years gone by? Are farm nutrient losses coming from a handful of high nutrient level farms or small amounts from many, many acres? The answers to these and many other questions are not known, but agriculture is trying to learn. And we can’t come up with real solutions when we don’t really understand the problems. There are extensive efforts underway to seek and find the answers, with much of the very large cost being paid for by farmer-supported agricultural organizations to find these answers (here is just one of MANY examples: After all, farmers do not want to pay for nutrients for their crops only to send them downstream.
      I am not opposed to adding meaningful, targeted cost-effective regulations (or better yet, strongly encouraged or incentivized voluntary measures) based on some of the answers to the above questions. The problem is that in our societal and political impatience, we continue to only add cost, bureaucracy and hassle without really doing anything to fix the problem by adding regulatory measures addressing questions we do not yet have the answers to. In the case of the distressed watershed designations currently being considered, most everyone acknowledges that the nutrient management plans that would be required are useful and positive tools, but mandating them is certainly not going to produce a clean Lake Erie any time soon. Many farmers already have nutrient management plans anyway. The problem with mandating them in a tight timeframe over a very large geographic area is that it will be very costly and cumbersome to implement because of the tremendous manpower required from SWCD staff (not for farmers themselves but for taxpayers). Watch this short video for a really great summary of this:
      To summarize, the point of my blog is that it makes sense to gain the answers to the many questions remaining about this extremely complex issue through the extensive edge-of-field water monitoring measures that have already been paid for and put into place before spending a bunch of money on regulations that we are guessing may help some. Gaining those answers takes time (every year the weather different, after all) and we need some patience.
      The huge CSO projects are targeted and specifically address a known problem. We have to employ patience to give them time to be implemented and give them a chance to benefit water quality. It would be silly to further regulate CSOs (or the individuals in them) while they are in the midst of working to address the problem. It is almost as silly to spend a bunch of taxpayer money to regulate farms and the agricultural community while there are many efforts underway to answer the many unknown questions that remain. What do you think?
      -Matt Reese

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