Ohio Continues its Efforts to Address Algal Blooms in Lake Erie

Algal blooms in Lake Erie have resurfaced as a major problem in recent years. Large algal blooms can even be viewed from satellite images. (Photo: Courtesy of NOAA)

Considerable effort and funding has been directed at studying the causes of the problem. Efforts are now under way to try and address the issue. One such effort is the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative, which is under the management of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The purpose of the initiative is to collaborate with farmers and other stakeholders to understand the problem better and develop programs that could address the root causes of algal blooms. 

In an interview with the Ohio Environmental Law Blog, Chris Abbruzzese, Deputy Director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, provided additional background about the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative.  

From Ohio EPA’s perspective, please provide an explanation of what the Agency believes is happening and where it thinks the problem is coming from?

Thirty years ago farmers, municipalities and industries in the Western Lake Erie Basin made significant efforts to cut the amount of phosphorus and sediment loading into Lake Erie by 50 percent. However, the dissolved form of phosphorus entering Ohio’s waterways from a variety of sources in the area remains an issue, resulting in increased occurrences of algal blooms. Over the last several years the increased frequency of algal blooms has had a significant impact in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, threatening its ecological integrity and creating a more challenging economic climate.

An algal bloom is a rapid increase in the population of algae, often as a result of excess nutrients, primarily phosphorus and nitrogen. Sources of nutrients include fertilizers used on farms and lawns, sewage treatment plants, faulty septic tanks & other home sewage treatment systems and some industrial operations. Some algal blooms can become toxic, potentially making the water unsafe for human contact or consumption. These toxic blooms create nuisance conditions that interfere with recreation and may cause fish kills when dead organic matter decays and depletes oxygen in the water. Public water supplies have water treatment plants that remove algal toxins but high levels of algal organic matter causes taste and odor problems and the formation of harmful by-products that must be controlled. All of this significantly increases the cost of providing safe drinking water supplies.    

 Under the direction of Governor Kasich, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency established the Clean Lakes Ohio Initiative this year to address these concerns.

What programs will the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative establish?

The Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative will: educate and encourage farmers to use good nutrient stewardship; expand the use of on-the-ground practices to help control the displacement of agricultural nutrients; expand the frequency and type of soil testing; and create a monitoring network to implement and access the effectiveness of management practices.

How do farmers view the Initiative?

Ohio farmers are stepping up to the plate to learn more about nutrient management and about modern conservation technologies. The Ohio Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers across the state to adopt the 4R Nutrient Stewardship model to reduce excess nutrients in the state’s waterways. Good nutrient stewardship not only benefits the environment, it also benefits farmers by saving money and time instead of applying unnecessary or excessive fertilizer to the field.

Studies indicate that the timing of fertilizer application and how well it is incorporated into the soil layer can significantly reduce dissolved phosphorus runoff. Being more conscious of what is going into the fields, when it is going into the fields and how it is going into the fields will maintain agricultural integrity while improving water quality.

Such an initiative could be controversial with the agricultural industry. How is the state trying to work with agri-business?

The Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Department of Natural Resources are exploring partnerships with the agribusiness industry to expand the frequency and type of soil testing being used. For example, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has worked with farmers in Wood, Henry, Hancock, Putnam and Defiance counties to enroll over 18,000 acres of farmland in a new soil testing initiative.

Due to size of the Lake Erie Basin, this seems like it’s more of a regional issue than an Ohio specific issue. Is there anything being done across the region to address the issue?

Yes. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency directors met last spring with their counterparts from Michigan and USEPA to discuss issues related to improving water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin. A lot of good ideas were shared and several other organizations are also interested in improving the water quality in Lake Erie. The International Joint Commission Water Quality Board is in the process of developing a plan to improve water quality in Lake Erie.

Also, in August, Ohio joined Indiana and Kentucky in a pilot multi-state water quality trading plan to reduce the run-off of agricultural nutrients. The Ohio River Basin Water Quality Project Pilot Trading Plan is the first consensus plan for interstate trading to reduce nutrients. The agreement provides businesses and municipalities with a more economically viable option to efficiently reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading in rivers, lakes and streams while providing the agricultural community more resources to implement conservation and best management practices in a watershed. The experience from this pilot plan can be used in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

 [For more information on the initiative please see cleanlakes.ohio.gov]


Push for Great Lakes Restoration Funding in the Economic Stimulus Package

Senators Stabenow and Feingold are trying to build support for Great Lakes funding in the economic stimulus package being developed.  The following letter is being circulated as a way of showing support for inclusion of funding. 

The letter highlights the traditional areas identified for Great Lakes Restoration- contaminated sediment, combined sewer overflows and eco restoration. 


Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:

As you move forward with an economic recovery package for our nation, we strongly urge that you include funding that will protect and promote jobs by restoring and protecting one of our most important natural resources – the Great Lakes. In particular, we urge you to provide funding for the Great Lakes Legacy Act, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act. These investments will put people to work cleaning up toxic sediments in our region’s rivers and harbors, ending decades of sewer overflows into 95 percent of our nation’s fresh surface water, and restoring hundreds of acres of vital wetlands and habitat.

Since 2002, cleanups funded under the Great Lakes Legacy Act have removed nearly a million cubic yards of toxic sediments from rivers and harbors in the Great Lakes. These cleanups—a priority under the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration plan—are creating thousands of jobs and opportunities for additional economic development in Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Gary, Duluth and other Midwest urban areas. By investing $262.0 million in 2009 and an additional $240.0 million in 2010 for toxic sediment cleanup projects, which were identified by our states, we can put thousands of people to work in struggling urban areas throughout our region. According to our states, these projects are ready to go and spending these funds can immediately begin to create jobs and economic activity in our region, with lasting impacts.

Another job-generating opportunity is investing in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. By investing in clean water infrastructure, we can put people to work tackling an important challenge of our times: aging water infrastructure and associated environmental, public health, and economic costs. It is estimated that for each $1 billion invested in clean water infrastructure, 47,000 jobs are generated. We recommend that the recovery package invest $10 billion in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, resulting in 470,000 jobs nationally. In the Great Lakes region alone, a $10 billion national investment translates into $3.7 billion for the region and over 170,000 jobs that can establish a modern and environmentally sound water infrastructure system.

The negative economic impacts of aging infrastructure are well documented throughout the region and nation: from sewage-related closures every summer at Great Lakes beaches and water-borne illnesses and deaths to road damage, such as sinkholes caused by breaking water infrastructure. Old and ailing waste water treatment facilities are the cause of more than 23 billion gallons of raw sewage entering the Great Lakes in 2006. Stresses on our aging infrastructure are further compounded—until Congress acts—by reduced stream and wetland protections under the Clean Water Act as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions, further taxing water infrastructure that must compensate for lost natural filtration and water storage functions, for example. Also, climate change is expected to bring heavier rains that will inundate overtaxed waste water systems and lead to increased untreated sewage overflows in the Great Lakes. Addressing all of these threats will ensure the economic vitality of the Great Lakes and the nation’s resources, which we all depend on for jobs, drinking water, and quality of life.

We also support investing in ecosystem restoration programs, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act program, to fund wetlands and habitat projects. Restoring habitat, aquatic ecosystems, and wetlands not only can reduce the overall cost of water infrastructure projects; they also contribute to our state’s hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching economies. These projects will also immediately generate jobs on par with other infrastructure pursuits--a $130 million dollar investment in ready-to-go restoration projects in the Great Lakes region will generate nearly 3,000 jobs.

We look forward to supporting legislation that builds economic opportunity and puts people back to work while enhancing environmental quality. Investing in clean water infrastructure, toxic sediment remediation, and habitat restoration accomplishes all three goals. We urge you to include these investments in the recovery package that we will consider next year.


cc: Senator Boxer, Chairman, Environment and Public Works
Senator Inhofe, Ranking Member, Environment and Public Works

(Photo: flickr vice48sr5005/everystockphoto.com)

Off-Shore Lake Erie Wind Farm Lease Proposal

Rep. Ross McGregor introduced H.B. 632 to require the Director of Natural Resources to establish a plan to make available for lease areas of the bed of Lake Erie for the purpose of wind energy development and to require Lake Erie wind farms to be certified by the Power Siting Board.

Legislation is necessary to create a mechanism to place wind turbines on Lake Erie.

For those who have not been following this proposal, here are some links of interest:

Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force-  This group, lead by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, has been exploring the feasibility of developing off-shore wind in Lake Erie. The feasibility study will recommend whether or not to proceed with the development of the Great Lakes Wind Energy Center – and if so, how to fund and implement its development. The study will provide a conceptual design for the offshore turbines, including the technical function and scope of the site.  The feasibility study is expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2009. 

Volokh Conspiracy- Blog post regarding design issues faced by locating in the Great Lakes versus Salt Water.  Good array of comments that further flush out the issues...

Opposition View from Local Cleveland Blog-  Bill Callahan questions whether the Region's first investment "should be a handful of experimental wind plants that can’t go on line in less than five years; must be engineered from the ground up with unpredictable costs, unpredictable construction and operating problems, and unpredictable output economics; and for all these reasons can only be built with millions of dollars in scarce public subsidies that would otherwise support lots of smaller, less risky initiatives?"

Proponent View Green Energy Ohio-  On their wind activities page they discuss the progress being made on the project.

My View-  In yesterday's post I discussed the prospect of Ohio becoming a leader in developing Clean Tech to boost its economy.  In that post I discuss the need for Ohio to find ways to lead the nation in Clean Tech development.  Austin (Texas) and Research Triangle (N.C.) and Silicon Valley (Calif.)  where the first to identify and lead in promoting technology to develop their economies.  For Ohio, and hopefully Cleveland, to beat all the other areas competing for Clean Tech jobs it must be a visible leader.  It must do something bold and first.  For those reasons, being the first to develop fresh water wind makes sense.

(Photo: Flickr Phault)

Important Issues Unaddressed After Passage of Great Lakes Compact

With Michigan and Pennsylvania's passage of the Compact, all of the Great Lake States have now endorsed it.  The next step is to go to Congress for ratification.   While the press has almost exclusively concentrated on the diversion aspects of the Great Lakes Compact, there are other provisions that could have important ramifications for businesses.  Ohio has yet to pass enabling legislation that will grant authority to the Ohio Department of Natural Resource to implement other important aspects of the Compact, most notably regulation of water withdraws. 

The driving force behind the Compact was to ban diversions to other States and Countries.  But the Compact also requires each of the eight states to establish a regulatory program for new or increased withdraws from the Great Lakes basin. Ohio's enabling legislation will decide critical issues such as- how much water must be withdrawn before a permit will be required?  The Compact sets a default number of 100,000 gallons per day (gpd).  Other states have established higher thresholds, such as 1,000,000 gpd.

Another critical question - what type of review is required if a business triggers the need for a withdraw permit?  The Compact contains very broad language that requires a review of impacts to the Great Lake basin from which the withdraw takes place.  However, the Compact grants the states a tremendous amount of discretion to establish the level of review associated with new withdraws.  For example, Ohio could prohibit issuance of a withdraw permit if the proposed project would result in decreased flow in a tributary of Lake Erie.  Ohio could also require a detailed review of the impacts to the ecosystem if a withdraw is allowed.

While focus has rightfully been on protecting this tremendous freshwater resource from being diverted elsewhere, there are important policy questions that still remain unanswered.  How Ohio and the other Great Lake States regulate withdraws within their states will arguably have a more direct and immediate impact on its constituents. 


Ohio already requires all individuals and business to register with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources a withdraw of 100,000 gpd taken anywhere in the State of Ohio. (See, Ohio Revised Code Section1521.16)   The requirement has been in place since 1988 and is retroactive.  Therefore, it covers all facilities who currently withdraw more than 100,000 gpd. 

ODNR has compiled the data it has assembled through these registrations.  The withdraw information provides some insight into which sectors of the economy are the largest users of water in the State of Ohio. 

It is important to note that withdraw is not equivalent to consumption.  For example, the power sector is responsible for the largest amount of water withdraw in the state.  The vast majority of these withdraws are for cooling water which gets returned to the receiving stream from which it withdrawn. 

National data appears to be pretty consistent with Ohio.  Below is a chart from the USGS that shows an assessment of water use from 1950-2000.  The most notable differences between the charts is how much water is used for irrigation purposes nationally versus what is used in Ohio.


Note:  the ODNR chart has errors.  The total number of facilities with withdraws over 100,000 gpd is 1,970 not 1,685 as indicated on the chart.