Northwest Ohio farmers working to protect Lake Erie from algae blooms

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Posted at 12:47 PM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 13:13:44-04

PERRYSBURG, Ohio — It’s a summer rite of passage here in Northeast Ohio—packing up the car, making the short drive west, and enjoying the Lake Erie Shores and Islands.

But especially later in summer, we’ve all become accustomed to algae blooms making portions of the lake unsafe to enjoy.

We look at the problem and see what’s being done to try to fix it.

Farming is a passion of Perrysburg’s Kris Swartz and so is conservation, trying to protect the state’s most crucial natural resource, Lake Erie, from harmful algae blooms.

“The Lake is wonderful, and I think people ought to know farmers are just as distraught when it turns green as folks in Toledo, Sandusky and Cleveland,” said the Wood County farmer.

Swartz's farm, 12 miles from the Lake and the thousands more in the Lake Erie Watershed, have a major impact.

When it rains or crops are watered, that water mixed with phosphorus-rich fertilizer eventually ends up in the Lake.

“You know our issue is phosphate getting into the water and that’s what really drives the algal blooms,” Swartz said.

Blooms like the one in 2014 that contaminated Toledo’s drinking water.

In 2017, Lakeside Chautauqua, just 75 miles from Cleveland, was so fed up with the issue, they built a community pool, so visitors didn’t have to get into the Lake.

Realizing the severity of the situation, in 2019 the State of Ohio created the H2Ohio Water initiative, which in part, helps develop best farming practices in places like the Maumee River Watershed in Northwest Ohio.

“We understand they must fertilize their crops. But as a state, we have simply not done a good enough job helping them reduce phosphorus runoff from fertilizer,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in February 2020.

One of the goals of H2Ohio is to reduce phosphorus levels in the lake by 40% by 2025.

So far, farms in 14 counties representing 1,000,000 acres of land are involved.

And already producing positive results.

“In this first year, there is an expectation that we will reduce the phosphorus levels by 10% due to the current amount of acres enrolled in the program, "said director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture Dorothy Pelanda.

As for the algae bloom forecast on Lake Erie this summer, experts predict a small bloom.

But that could change depending how much rain we get this Summer.

And the overall health of the Lake is stabilizing after record levels of nutrients in the water.

“In a general perspective, I don’t think it’s getting worse.” Director for Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory Dr. Christopher Winslow said.

"But in many issues, it's stabilized, and we need to push that effort of not only the research but changes in behavior and public policy."

With farmers like Swartz happy to oblige.

“People in Cleveland should know all farmers want good water quality,” Swartz said. "There is no money in it for anybody to send nutrients down the water stream.”

Critics of the H2Ohio plan say the state needs to do a better job when it comes to issuing farming permits.

One study claims to show a direct link between an increase in farms in the Lake Erie watershed to dramatic increases in phosphorus levels in the Lake.

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