Article courtesy of Lisa Wozniak | February 6, 2015 | Michigan Live | Shared as educational material
No drink, no boil.
That’s the water advisory more than 400,000 people from Monroe to Toledo woke up to this past August. The culprit? Microcystin, a toxin produced by blue-green algae that had contaminated the water.
The crisis confirmed much of what we’ve known for years: Lake Erie is sick. If it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have. Formerly known as “North America’s Dead Sea,” Lake Erie was an unregulated dumping ground for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. But with the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with Canada in 1972, the major industrial sources of contamination were targeted, along with chronic sewage overflows; and an unprecedented cleanup effort restored the lake back to health.
Fast forward to 2015: farming has changed, and so has the climate. And, algal blooms are back in a big way. While experts at the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute agree that nutrient pollution from widespread corn cultivation–incentivized by federal ethanol policies–is a significant contributor to the problem, another major source is runoff from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or large-scale livestock operations.
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program is a key tool for regulating point sources of harmful pollutants, such as phosphorus from manure, but Toledo’s drinking water crisis demonstrates the need for a stronger set of rules. Right now, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is set to update our state’s rules for how to monitor and protect clean water from the risks associated with large-scale livestock farms. That means that the Department has the opportunity to ban practices that pollute our water and embolden toxic algae blooms.
With demand for dairy, meat and poultry products up, as well as high incentive for ethanol production, industrial agricultural operations in the Great Lakes watershed are increasing. And, large-scale CAFOs are only producing greater quantities of phosphorous-rich manure.
An abundance of manure is not inherently bad news for the Great Lakes, but the way that manure is being used is raising red flags. Too often, farmers are applying manure to frozen and snow-covered ground where it fails to fertilize the rock-hard soil and ends up washing into nearby streams, rivers and lakes with the spring thaw, creating ideal conditions for harmful algae in Lake Erie.
In January, nine organizations, including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, signed on to a formal letter to the Michigan DEQ requesting that manure application on frozen and snow-covered ground be banned to reduce phosphorus runoff. The agency is reviewing all comments before issuing a final version of the rule this year. The U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission has also joined the call to ban the application of manure to frozen ground.
Addressing Lake Erie’s toxic algae will necessitate action by both farmers and all levels of government, and getting a conservation-minded Farm Bill passed that rewards farmers for environmentally-minded practices was an important step. Unfortunately, incentive-based programs alone haven’t been enough to rectify the problem and won’t be enough to save our Great Lakes.
Right now, here in Lansing, the Michigan DEQ has an opportunity to take a significant step toward better protecting our majestic waterways by adopting strong rules limiting manure application on frozen ground. This is an opportunity that we cannot afford to pass up.