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, www.sciencedaily.com 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 www.sciencedaily.com: “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 Cleveland19.com: 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?