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To whom it may concern: Something’s fishy about the Toledo crisis

To those concerned with the water ban in Toledo, here are some musings, opinions and thoughts about the water disaster on Ohio’s northern shore that are not for the faint of heart. You have been warned.

To farmers in Ohio

First, you know I love you and I am on your side. But wake up! If this challenge does not wake you up about the importance of doing everything in your power to eliminate the escape of nutrients from your farms, I am not sure what non-legislative-restriction-mandate-law will.

But, you say:

“We are already doing so much to improve…”

“Sewage treatment plants are a huge part of the problem…”

“Look at all the fertilizer people put on their lawns…”

“We are funding measures for more research…”

“We are being more proactive than anyone else…”

Yep, I get it. Those statements are all correct, but they don’t necessarily matter to the people of Toledo. The mom who needed to bathe her infant, the restaurant owner who had to close, the guy who drove three counties for a case of clean water — they may not care that agriculture uses less phosphorus than 30 years ago and they may not care that you are being proactive. They care about their water and as a steward of the land they feel you owe it to society to do the best job possible with everything you do. A tall order, I know, but an increasingly necessary one.

There is much to learn yet about nutrient management with regard to conservation tillage, tile, crop rotations, cover crops, the four Rs, and numerous other practices. With on-farm implementation of such practices on farms comes a cost, change and risk for farmers. But the responses from situations like this are sending clear signals that society is demanding that these costs, changes and risks are a necessity of involvement in production agriculture. If you are unwilling to change, then consider the costs to agriculture with mandated fertilizer rates, a tile moratorium, increased certification requirements, a phosphorus tax, more paperwork, tillage mandates and, in short, many more rules that will hurt your bottom line and your farm’s productivity.

It is frustrating that agriculture seems to get most of the blame for this. I appreciate all that agriculture has done to address the issue. I also fully understand and appreciate the incredible effort and progress on many individual farms to address this issue. But I am guessing there are some residents of a certain northern Ohio city who may not see things that way. Are you prepared to tell them honestly that you are doing EVERYTHING possible to maximize the quality of the water leaving your farm? There is always room to improve and, though changing can be costly, not changing can be even more costly.

Nobody is perfect, but (fair or not) when it comes to managing nutrients, the public is expecting you to be.

To the EPA

Protecting water quality and safety is an extremely serious matter. There is no doubt or question about this. Having said that, there are some questions being raised about the motives, timelines and details of all of this that just seem a bit fishy with this Lake Erie business — and I am not talking about the walleye.

First, there were no reported serious illnesses or water-related maladies that resulted from the incident at all. Kudos to you for preventing them. It seems that you really saved the day here.

Yet, one has to wonder that if the EPA had not deemed this to be an issue, would it have really been a problem in the first place? With no physical manifestation of city water quality problems to point to, some are speculating that the water situation was only a crisis because the EPA said it was.

It also just so happens that Toledo’s water quality problem very coincidentally occurs as the EPA is taking tremendous criticism about the murky proposed water quality regulations at the federal level. A weekend worth of water-quality outrage goes a long way to lend support to a much-maligned Water Rule.

I sincerely believe that you, the EPA, really just want to do what you feel is best for everyone. But at what cost and by what means?

The politics of this issue may be more complex than the science and the cause, but one thing is very clear. The crisis in Toledo clearly (and very conveniently) shifts the political tide of the controversial water issue in the favor of the EPA and increased regulations for agriculture.

For reference, check out the less-than-subtle political undertones of this article in “Time.”

Fishy indeed.

To “everyone”

This water quality situation is not a farming problem. It is not a point source problem. It is an “everyone” problem. If you eat, grow a garden, live in Ohio where the top contributor to the economy is agriculture, demand convenience in your food options, buy organic, buy conventional, have a lawn, use a septic system, use city water, live in the city, live in the country, live in the suburbs, or just exist, you have contributed to the problem and will continue to contribute to the problem. This is an “everyone” problem. It requires “everyone” solutions and, quite frankly, no one really knows what those solutions are yet. Blaming any one segment of society for this problem is wholly unproductive. This is an extremely complex situation that cannot be solved quickly or easily and it cannot be solved by anyone, only by “everyone.”

To Toledo

In what was a very challenging set of circumstances, it seems that you handled things extremely well. The general teamwork, good will and patience demonstrated by your citizens shows the kind of effort and attitudes that will be required to address this very daunting problem moving forward.

To me

Remember how fortunate you are every day to have water and food in quantities that many in the world cannot even fathom. How lucky you are, even in challenging times, to live where you do. As a society, obtaining water and food each day requires of us the least amount of effort in human history. Simply amazing.

Is there something to complain about? Don’t.

Instead, call the septic guys, study the problem, do your part, hug the kids, thank a farmer, thank God, and say a little prayer for Toledo too.


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  1. Good article but what the heck are “the four Rs?” English, please! 😉

  2. Right product
    Right rate
    Right time
    Right place

  3. Well said Matt.

  4. I know that no one wants to have to be regulated.

    I know that no one wants government overreach.

    But, there are going to have to be changes and the changes will not happen without further regulation because, without it, here we are.

    You can complain about how the EPA affects your profits–as anyone who has wanted to make a buck using land has for the past 40 years–but the southwest end of the lake is a mess and the EPA didn’t do it.

    My great-grandparents and grandparents farmed around the Deshler area, and some cousins still do, so don’t assume that I don’t care about the farmers. I know it is not easy street.

    Toledo’s problem is partly due to our own negligence in not adequately maintaining and upgrading our water facilities; that and extending service to outlying areas that the system was never designed to service. But, that is aside from the algae problem.

    Concrete actions must be taken. I know the effects won’t occur overnight, probably not in my life-time, but action needs to start immediately.

  5. Condsirer extending the intake to the East ?This problem I’ll not be solved in short term,need to work with all watershed area’s. From Devil’s lake,large cattle business company’s.
    G draws after from? Oregon also draws from ? Jerry M.

  6. Good article, Matt. I have to admit, I too wondered about the Toledo water problem. Before we start prescribing solutions though, don’t we first need to understand the problem and the cause?

    Specifics were curiously missing about the source of the problem, other than it was the same blue-green algae infection seen in other waterways in western Ohio.

    So if the cause was runoff from farmers upstream, why were other cities upstream (closer to the supposed source) unaffected? They still took their drinking water from the river and reported no problems.

    I am not proposing endless study for the purpose of forestalling any action, but neither am I willing to take action without knowing if it is the correct action or if that action matters.

  7. Matt is also very correct in stating how the farming community’s responses fall short in terms of what the consumer knows (or thinks he knows based on hysterical news coverage).

    For farmers and agribusiness, this is a marketing challenge as much as anything.

    Consumers need to know that we live and work in the same areas they do. We and our livestock drink water from the same watershed. We test our soil before applying fertilizer and take steps to incorporate it into the soil. We don’t apply excessive nutrients or allow it to runoff into ditches and waterways, because it costs us money. People in these communities are important to us as farmers because they are our neighbors, our kids and grandkids, and our customers. Their interests are our interests.

    This kind of effort is the only way we can counter the fear and hype about water quality and turn the finger of blame away from farmers and toward real solutions to real problems for all of us. (fade to black)

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