Ohio Lake “Dying”: Governor Applies Lipstick

Algae scum in the waves of Grand Lake St. Marys, Ohio, last June -- the symptom of a fatal illness. Last week, the governor applied a Band-Aid. (Photo by St. Marys Lake Improvement Association)

The government of the great state of Ohio demonstrated last week, with laser-like precision, exactly why we do not have a chance of avoiding the multiple catastrophes bearing down on our supplies of food, energy and water. In unveiling what was universally described as a “plan” to deal with one of the state’s biggest pollution problems, the governor and his fellow polititicans also demonstrated the new first principle of government: it is far, far better to appear to be doing something than to actually do something.

Here’s the problem. Excess application of synthetic fertilizer and unfettered dumping of industrial quantities of animal manures have clotted the waterways of agricultural Ohio with algae — minute plants whose growth is over-stimulated by the over-supply of synthetic nutrients. The problem, which has been known to be worsening for many decades, reached a point last year at which the excesses of industrial agriculture began to eat out the foundations of another major industry — tourism.

Grand Lake St. Marys is, with an area of 13,000 acres, Ohio’s largest lake and, by itself, the generator of $160 million in tourist revenues and 2,600 jobs. In 2009, the lake became so clogged with algae, and its water quality so degraded as a result, that the state EPA posted the lake with signs advising people not to drink the water and to limit any contact with it. Much angst ensued, but the only apparent effort to deal with the problem was an appeal by then-governor Ted Strickland for federal cash to somehow deal with what he described as a problem that was “causing a significant loss to local businesses and the overall livelihood of the region.” If anyone suggested dealing with the sources of the problem — the farm fields and feed lots — they did not get a hearing.

Anyone puzzled by this needs to know that while tourism at the lake yields $160 million a year, agriculture in the two adjacent counties is worth more than four times that.

Winter killed the algae mats (as winter always does), they sank from view (to lie on the bottom where their decomposition sucks all the oxygen out of the water), the water cleared and in the spring of 2010 the Ohio EPA took down the warning signs. If they had any idea that the crisis was over — and it’s highly unlikely that they did — they had only a few weeks before they had to put up even sterner signs. Because this year, not only did the algae come back as before, it was joined by a new, toxic strain that laced the water with liver- and neuro-toxins that killed fish and threatened people. The new signs advised people not to touch the water. The lake’s tourist industry crashed and burned. For the region’s agriculture industry, it’s business as usual.

Now comes the new governor, John Kasich, to announce last Friday what has been variously represented as “an accelerated recovery plan,” “a new attack on algae,” “an effort to keep the algae from returning,” and “a plan for stopping algae.” A cursory review of the actual content of his proposal, however, leads to the conclusion that he would have been better advised to hold a prayer service.

Here’s what the governor said he might do, if he can find the money:

  • Dredge more of the lake sediment that is suffused with nutrients — phosphorous and nitrates from agricultural runoff — some of which will be disposed of elsewhere, some of which will be piled up at a different location in the same lake to create “wetland islands.”
  • Kill more carp, because they stir up the aforementioned sediments and mix nutrients into the water.
  • Filter more of the water flowing into the lake to remove nutrients.
  • And, if possible — meaning that if someone somehow figures out how to raise, borrow or print the money — dump alum into the lake. Or some of the lake. Alum is a chemical that is supposed to lock up phosphorous in the water so the algae can’t use it, but when it was tested as a way to deal with Ohio’s problem, it failed.

So the governor proposes to dig up more — but not all — of the contaminated lake bottom, to filter some — but far from all — of the contaminated water flowing into the lake and to dump in some — but not all — of the lake a chemical that, demonstrably, does not work. All of this subject to his somehow, sometime, finding the money in a state facing an eight billion dollar budget deficit. And this is described as a “plan.”

In the governor’s announcement and the resulting media coverage, there was barely a mention of limiting the application of synthetic fertilizers or the spreading of manure, hardly a whisper about leaving buffer zones between fertilized fields and waterways, and no suggestion that feedlots ought to be responsible for their city-scale effluents. (Yes, there are federal programs that “encourage” buffer zones and wetland preservation. They offer $3,500 an acre to preserve or restore wetlands, where an acre of cropland bring three time that on the open market; and a princely $50 an acre to create buffer zones. But the programs don’t have any money anyway.)

Governor Kasich may not understand biology, or comprehend what is about to happen to his state, but he certainly knows his politics. By proposing a flurry of expensive activity that can have no successful outcome he has generated scores of admiring headlines, has earned the approval of environmental organizations for taking a “first step” in the general direction of an eventual maybe solution, and yet he has not antagonized the industrial-ag people whose money he needs to get reelected. Does it get any better than this?

Meanwhile, in the words of Sean Logan, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, “The clock is ticking. This lake is dying.”

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