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Don’t Drink the Farm
Agriculture runoff is choking Lake Erie. Are lawmakers finally ready to tell farmers to knock it off?

Toxic algae blooms choke Lake Erie almost every year. But this August, that algae made its way into Toledo's drinking water, leaving more than 400,000 people without their taps for two days and making headlines across the country.

Now the scientists and public officials who have been warning about Lake Erie's problems for years are determined to finally do something about it. And that means farmers, they're looking at you.

Fertilizer runoff from farms (and suburban lawns) contains high levels of phosphorous. The nutrient feeds algae, allowing it to reproduce rapidly, killing oxygen and aquatic wildlife. Climate change is only going to make this problem worse (see “When It Rains, It Poisons”). So this week, the Great Lakes Commission, which is appointed by the region's governors and lawmakers to develop environmental and economic policies, announced that it wants to reduce the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Erie by at least 40 percent.

“When half a million people lose their drinking water for a few days, that’s a wake up call,” executive director Tim Eder says. “It’s an indication that something’s not working.”

The Clean Water Act already limits how much cities and industry can dump into waterways. But the law doesn’t apply to agriculture, because runoff is considered a “nonpoint source” of pollution. The vast majority—91 percent—of the nutrients entering Lake Erie, however, now come from nonpoint sources. (The Environmental Protection Agency is working to address this problem through a new Clean Water Act rule that would cover headwaters and streams.)

For now, governments around the Great Lakes rely on voluntary programs, often actually paying farmers to keep phosphorous runoff levels in check. That’s a really expensive strategy—we’re talking billions of dollars, the commission says. And if one thing is clear in this green, murky mess, it’s that those policies aren’t working.

The 40 percent reduction recommended by the commission is, unfortunately, just a recommendation. The group doesn't have the power to enforce its suggestions. What it does have, says Eder, is a direct line to state legislators. Hopefully, he says, those lawmakers will listen. A green lake might not have been enough to get their attention, but 400,000 voters without drinking water is a whole different matter.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔