By Joey Horan
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane, Alliance for the Great Lakes

In late September, temperatures in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan eclipsed 90 degrees for six straight days. Perhaps those who lived further off the shores of Lake Erie worked their cognitive dissonance muscles enough to enjoy the extended summer, but there was no such pleasure for those living near the Western Lake Erie Basin.

Following the spate of high temps, algae did what algae do in warm, nutrient dense waters. They grew. More than 700 square miles of the western portion of Lake Erie turned a pea green, Toledo’s shoreline smelled like a sewer and its chlorine-treated tap water like a hotel hot tub.

Though the city’s drinking water advisory held steady on “clear,” Toledoans remained apprehensive. In an attempt to assuage fears, then-City Councilman Kurt Young went live on Facebook to record himself drinking straight from the tap. After a dramatic gulp, he looked straight to camera and said, “It’s clean, it’s safe.”

Such political sophistication cannot erase the memory of 2014, when, as a result of a harmful algal bloom (HAB) near the intake crib of Toledo’s Collins Water Treatment Plant, harmful levels of microcystin were detected in the drinking water. The levels were high enough to set off a two-and-a-half-day no-drink advisory for more than 400,000 people.

Furthermore, Young’s invoking of the benevolence of local government — “I want to keep you safe,” he said — fails to reckon with, or even respect, the environmental crisis threatening the people of the region.

Such political sophistication cannot erase the memory of 2014, when harmful levels of microcystin were detected in the drinking water, setting off a two-and-a-half-day no-drink advisory for more than 400,000 people.

The scientific, civic, political, and agricultural communities are in consensus on two things when it comes to the resurgence of HABs. One, the Western Lake Erie Basin has a phosphorus problem, and two, the agriculture industry is the biggest contributor of phosphorus to the lake. With the problem clearly identified, one would think the solution would be simple. But holding the agriculture industry accountable is a political and economic minefield that challenges the highest reaches of corporate and regulatory power.

* * *

The Western Lake Erie Basin is the shallowest, warmest portion of the shallowest, warmest Great Lake. Since 2002, harmful algal blooms have haunted its waters. The blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, that drive the blooms, thrive in the western basin, where they are are fed a steady diet of phosphorus by the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, which gather and dump nutrient runoff from approximately 5 million acres of land.

“This algae only needs two things,” says Dave Spangler, a fishing charter captain who has seen his business suffer from the blooms, “warm water and phosphorus.” Spangler has been fishing on the lake since the 1970s and has seen it come “full circle” back to a state of toxicity.

Lake Erie was famously declared dead in the 1960s due to industrial pollution and municipal sewage facilities. The revamped Federal Clean Water Act and the international Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), both passed in 1972, established water quality guidelines, regulatory measures, and goals for total phosphorus reduction in the lake.

With new regulatory powers in place, point source pollution — the channelized pipe-meets-waterway variety — went down. Sewage treatment facilities also received upgrades, and phosphates were taken out of soaps and detergents. The result: a 60-percent reduction in total phosphorus and the disappearance of HABs by the early 1990s.

“When you take the load off the lake, it cleans itself up,” Spangler says.

Indeed, the same conditions that make Lake Erie susceptible to HABs — warm, shallow water — also allow it to rebound quickly. This is a source of optimism for many people working to protect Lake Erie, including Chris Winslow, the Executive Director of the Ohio Sea Grant. Water in the western basin, and the phosphorus dissolved in it, he says, simply don’t stay in the system very long. Once again, “if you shut the source off, she can rebound pretty quickly,” Winslow says.

But in the mid 1990s, even as total phosphorus — the sum of dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) and particulate phosphorus — hovered at or below the benchmark set by the GLWQA in 1972, DRP went up. Algae loved that because they can more easily consume DRP compared to particulate phosphorus, which is bound to a soil particle and settles to the lake floor.

Spangler, a man who makes his living on the water, gestures to the land to explain why HABs have become a seasonal occurrence in western Lake Erie, soon to be expected after Fourth of July fireworks.

* * *

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, of the 4.9 million acres in the Western Lake Erie Basin, 4.2 million acres are in the Maumee River Watershed. Of those 4.2 million acres, 71 percent are used for agricultural purposes. Eighty-five percent of total phosphorus delivered to the lake by the Maumee River comes from farm fertilizer and manure.

Jessica Wilbarger, a Natural Resource Specialist at the Lucas County Soil and Water Conservation District — a county agency that works with farmers on best management practices to reduce nutrient flow into the water — says changing agricultural practices in the 1990s are responsible for the rise of DRP entering the lake. She lays out three contributing and interdependent factors. The acceptance of each factor, she says, tends to correlate to the theory’s ability to “upset the underpinning economics of agriculture.”

First, Wilbarger says, farming got “more intensive.” More fertilizer was spread per acre, upping the amount of DRP in the soil.

Second, a no-till philosophy was widely adopted across the Midwest. This led to phosphorus stratification, Wilbarger says, meaning the nutrient concentrated near the surface of the soil.

While the objective of no-till succeeded — it kept soil on the land and decreased the amount of particulate phosphorus entering the lake — it increased the amount of DRP entering the watershed.

No-till also left farmers with a weed problem, Wilbarger says. They could no longer bury weeds through soil inversion. And this is where the third theory comes into play.

In 1996, agricultural giant Monsanto released Roundup Ready soybeans and followed two years later with Roundup Ready corn. The genetically modified crops’ ability to withstand multiple applications of the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), which, at the time, killed weeds and just about anything else non-Roundup Ready, allowed them to rapidly take over the U.S. market.

The light bulb went off, says Ohio Northern University chemist, Christopher Spiese, when he saw DRP and acreage of herbicide resistant soy increase along the same timeline. By testing soil samples throughout the watershed in his lab, he discovered that glyphosate desorbed phosphorus under the right soil conditions. “This is basic chemistry, it’s an equilibrium process,” he says. Glyphosate and phosphates compete for the same sites on a soil particle. Depending on pH and the presence of metals in the soil, Spiese says, glyphosate can release phosphorus from soil particles, granting it passage to Lake Erie.

Monsanto is the obvious culprit in the declining health of the Western Lake Erie Basin. But very few farmers would voluntarily give up the labor savings and crop security that Monsanto’s Roundup and Roundup Ready crops provide, assuming discontinuation of a Monsanto crop is even possible.

The scale of this problem is as massive as the watershed itself. Approximately 86 percent of farmland that drains to the Western Lake Erie Basin is used to plant corn, soy, or some rotation of the two. Assuming nationwide averages, 94 percent of soy crops and 90 percent of corn crops in the region are Roundup Ready.

Monsanto, according to Spiese’s study, is the obvious culprit in the declining health of the Western Lake Erie Basin. But very few farmers would voluntarily give up the labor savings and crop security that Monsanto’s Roundup and Roundup Ready crops provide, assuming discontinuation of a Monsanto crop is even possible. As Wilbarger warns, placing meaningful restrictions on Roundup or Roundup Ready crops — the basis for GMO food — would upend what Gov. John Kasich has called Ohio’s strongest industry.

* * *

Algae on the surface of Lake Erie

Joey Sink-Oiler is the district manager at the Lucas County Soil and Water Conservation District. She says that the farmers they work with “live on a very small margin of error. It’s very expensive to be a farmer and your lifeblood comes from the weather.”

When it comes to conservation practices, farmers need to see short-term gains, Wilbarger says. “A lot of people here run on an annual operating loan, and the bank doesn’t care if your soil is going to be better in 10 years, they are going to need that payment at the end of the year.”

Wilbarger says that Lucas County Soil and Water goes to great lengths to keep the farmer in mind, using a pragmatic philosophy of “conventional farming with a conservation twist.”

Their Blue Creek demo farm some 20 miles southwest of Toledo features a suite of conservation practices — mostly on-field or edge-of-field practices to deal with surface runoff and erosion — that it helps farmers implement. “It doesn’t matter if we have a perfect solution if nobody’s going to adopt it,” she says.

At the edge of a corn-stubbled field, Wilbarger shows me one method farmers are adopting across the watershed in an attempt to manage runoff that exits through subterranean “tiles” dug beneath a vast amount of midwest farmland. Tiles — originally clay, now perforated plastic tubes — were first laid in the 1800s to make the Great Black Swamp of Northwest Ohio and Northeast Indiana farmable. Tiling systems lower the water table, aerate the soil, and “make for beautiful farmland,” Wilbarger says, which produces “record yields for corn and soy in this part of the country.”

On the flip side, tiling provides an efficient underground tributary system for nutrient runoff to enter drainage ditches, streams, tributaries and, finally, Lake Erie. That’s where the drainage water management structure, code for “adjustable dam,” Wilbarger says, comes in. It gives the farmer control over when and how much water enters a stream or ditch from the tile outlet. Timing is crucial when it comes to HABs, as one study shows that the majority of nutrient loading to the lake occurs during approximately ten storm events per year.

Still, the adjustable dam does not impact the concentration of DRP in the water, which remains the crux of the problem.

“Total phosphorus is easy to control,” Spiese says. “If you keep the particulate out of the water, you control total phosphorus.” But dissolved phosphorus, he says, “remains incredibly difficult to control. How do you get the water in without the phosphorus?”

* * *

Spokespeople for the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Farm Bureau point to the implementation of conservation practices as proof that farmers are good environmental stewards.

Brett Gates of the Ohio Department of Agriculture says, “the [agricultural] community is at the forefront of taking the necessary steps of both maintaining [agricultural] productivity while protecting natural resources.”

Joe Cornely, the spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau, adds to that. “Our contention is that water quality and food production need to be parallel goals. It’s not an either or proposition.”

Aside from the dubious designation of GMO corn and soy as food, statistics show that Ohio farmers export the majority of their crops while residents of Ohio, a very food insecure state, eat mostly imported foods.

Given these facts, Cornely’s parallel proposition does not add up. While farming in the Western Lake Erie Basin for the most part does not feed local residents, it does threaten their drinking water. Chris Winslow can attest to that. His research priorities at the Ohio Sea Grant focus on the human health impacts of consuming HAB-related toxins and on detecting and treating toxins in the water. “It’s going to take a bit to figure out how to reduce the nutrients,” he says, “but we don’t have the luxury of figuring out whether we can drink the water or not.”

Still, the agricultural PR narrative is strong and well funded, and has the benefit of a simple story that cuts to the heart of people’s economic anxieties. “It’s the economic output of agriculture that supports and enables local communities,” Cornely says. “The practice of producing that food, whether it’s to feed your neighbor or to feed the world, is a huge driver of Ohio’s economy.”

While farming in the Western Lake Erie Basin for the most part does not feed local residents, it does threaten their drinking water.

The story cuts two ways, though. Dave Spangler took a 25-percent hit to his income in 2015 because he had to cut the fishing season short due to a massive algal bloom. “The phone doesn’t ring in August,” he says. That trickles down to the fish cleaners, bait and tackle stores, marina fuel stops, and the entire tourism industry built on Lake Erie’s shores, he says.

Melissa Greene-Hopfer, sustainability coordinator at the Board of Lucas County Commissioners, worries that HABs could affect the development of the entire county. “We have organizations constantly trying to attract new businesses to the area, to attract new young talent, and when we’ve got a stain on our reputation that our river and lake turn green every year, that doesn’t make us an attractive place,” she says.

Greene-Hopfer also points out the costs associated with contaminated water. “We’re paying to treat not only our water but the water that comes [down] the watershed as well. You’ve got the urban areas footing the bulk of the bill. It would be nice to spread that cost out.”

In speaking on the difficulties of regulating power company pollution, Jon Devine, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Counsel who participated in the University of Toledo’s Great Lakes Water Conference earlier this month, says, “it’s 100-percent appropriate for [industry] to deal with the externalities of their production.”

Appropriate, yes, but extremely difficult.

Mike Ferner, founder of the Toledo-based citizen-activist group, Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie (ACLE), places the current fight against large agricultural interests in the long history of industry working against people and the environment. “Every time they dump more crap into our air and water,” he says, “that’s a price that the public and the environment [are] paying and a cost that they’re avoiding. [Agriculture] isn’t any different, it’s just the one we’ve got to deal with now.”

* * *

Crappy externalities are especially relevant when it comes to confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the Western Lake Erie Watershed, public enemy No. 1 for several environmental groups in the region. According to a 2008 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs have skyrocketed since the late 1980s. The report says that the driving force of their growth “is not the inevitable result of market forces,” rather, “it has been fostered by misguided public policy” mainly in the form of subsidies that reduce their operating costs.

Nearly 12 million animals reside in 146 CAFOs in the Western Lake Erie Watershed (this spreadsheet by the Michigan Sierra Club shows a breakdown of these numbers by state, county, animal, species, etc.). They produce approximately 700 million gallons of nutrient-rich manure that gets liquefied, stored in lagoons, and spread untreated on fields where it follows the fate of fertilizers and rainwater. ACLE calculates that this amount of biowaste is equal to the combined amount of annual sewage produced in Chicago and Los Angeles.

“We have organizations constantly trying to attract new businesses to the area, to attract new young talent, and when we’ve got a stain on our reputation that our river and lake turn green every year, that doesn’t make us an attractive place.”

Conspicuously, CAFOs do not get much play in state-funded scientific papers or government reports. A recently written white paper on phosphorus reduction produced by a who’s-who group of Ohio HAB researchers never once mentions CAFOs.

That’s why citizen-led watchdog groups like ACLE, the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, and the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club track the activities of CAFOs in the watershed. As Ferner puts it, “agriculture in general and factory farms in particular are so insulated from regulation, they’re basically running the show.”

The Less=More coalition of the Michigan Sierra club produced a Follow the Manure report that tracks the approximate $17 million worth of federal subsidies given to CAFOs in the watershed between 2008 and 2015. The funds come from the Federal Farm Bill and are designated for pollution management. Meanwhile, implementation of best management practices, also funded in part by the Farm Bill, are not addressing dissolved phosphorus loads coming through tiles (see table 4). The result: state-sanctioned pollution outpaces state-sanctioned conservation and regulatory efforts.

* * *

Satellite view of algae coverage on Lake Erie (Toledo lower left) in September 2017 [source: Landsat 8]

The revolving door between government regulator and industry insider facilitates the disparity between knowledge of the problem and implementation of solutions. Karl Gebhardt, Deputy Director for Water Resources at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, previously worked as a registered lobbyist for the Ohio Farm Bureau, his employer for 19 years. “He also was a registered lobbyist for the first dairy CAFOs that came into Northwest Ohio,” Ferner says.

Despite entrenched industry interests guarding the hen house (or overcrowded dairy farm, as the case may be), Ferner and others are calling on the Ohio EPA to declare the Western Lake Erie Basin impaired under the Clean Water Act.

“The Clean Water Act is still the law of the land and we think the EPA should be forced to do its job,” Ferner says.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center agrees. In a joint lawsuit with ACLE, the groups are suing the U.S. EPA for accepting the Ohio EPA’s 2016 impairment listing which did not include the Western Lake Erie Basin.

“The Clean Water Act is still the law of the land and we think the EPA should be forced to do its job.”

Madeleine Fleisher of the Environmental Law and Policy Center is lead counsel for the suit and laid out its reasoning for the closing panel at the Great Lakes Water Conference, which also featured Gebhardt.

Fleisher’s argument follows the provisions of the Clean Water Act, which grant states a lot of control over their water. “[States] set water quality standards for all their water bodies,” Fleisher says, and every two years, they must determine “if they’re meeting the standards that they themselves have set.” If the state finds that a body of water is not meeting those standards, then it is impaired.

This is all codified in law, as are Lake Erie’s designated uses and water quality standards, the two categories used to evaluate bodies of water in Ohio. One such standard is being “Free from nutrients entering the waters as a result of human activity in concentrations that create nuisance growths of aquatic weeds and algae.”

So, if the Western Basin is impaired according to the state’s own internal logic, why won’t the Ohio EPA list it as impaired?

Ferner’s answer to that question is good old-fashioned corruption.

But Chris Winslow of the Ohio Sea Grant warns that an impairment designation “is not a trivial decision.” He does see “a benefit in having the lake declared impaired,” but worries about potential unintended outcomes.

“What you’re trying to do is pick a number,” he says. “Below this number the lake is great and above this number the lake is impaired. If we pick that number too high, we may never get to it to trigger the benefits of being impaired. If we pick it too low, we may never get off that list [because] no matter what we do on the landscape, we’ll never get below that number.”

These numbers, Fleisher explains, are Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). They are essentially “pollution diets.” An impairment designation, she says, “triggers an obligation under the Clean Water Act for the state to prepare a total maximum daily load,” develop a plan, and demonstrate progress in reaching those numbers.

Gebhardt of the Ohio EPA prefers a different number, one that is unenforceable by federal courts and agencies. That’s the 40-percent reduction in phosphorus inputs to the Western Lake Erie Basin set forth by the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and doubled down on by the Ohio EPA, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment in the Western Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement. In accordance with the latter agreement, the co-signers are to prepare a Domestic Action Plan to address phosphorus loading in the western basin. The plan should be finalized and put into effect by April 2018.

Though the 40-percent reduction is based on good science, Gebhardt and the Ohio EPA appear to be using it as a tool to placate the public and avoid the meaningful oversight and accountability — through the federal government and courts, Fleisher says — that comes through an impairment designation under the Clean Water Act. Fleisher thinks the approach of the collaborative agreement is problematic because it depends on voluntary measures. On top of that, all signs show that the midterm goal of 20-percent reduction will not be reached by 2020.

While the agreement looks good, it is made in bad faith. Michigan’s take on the issue provides a counterexample. They signed the agreement and listed their portion of Lake Erie as impaired.

* * *

For some local activists, a “pollution diet” and the regulatory system it embodies are the problems that need to be addressed.

“We’re trying to end that legalized harm and licensed-to-pollute mentality,” says Markie Miller, an organizer for the grassroots organization, Toledoans for Safe Water. “To settle for allowable limits,” she says, is to accept that the battle is already lost.

The group is currently collecting signatures for a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights,” which aims to preempt harm on the lake and grant it legal standing. If the group collects enough verifiable signatures, the charter amendment will appear on the 2018 Toledo ballot and could be voted into municipal law.

For Tish O’Dell, the Ohio organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, it’s not just a drinking water problem or even an ecosystem problem. It’s a democracy problem.

“The system is fixed and we need to break it,” O’Dell says. “What we’re taught to do is to go to our elected officials to make change. But that hasn’t been working. We need to change [the legal standing] of nature so that it’s not looked at as property, but as a rights bearing entity. It has the right to exist, to live, to flourish.”

“We’re trying to change that licensed-to-pollute mentality.”

For Miller, the sight of Lake Erie turning green is an existential problem. “This is a physical manifestation of the corporate state and I can reach out and touch it,” she says. “That’s the lake’s pain coming to the surface.”

O’Dell and Miller have studied past movements and know the difficulty of pushing for a paradigm shift. In her various legal battles around the state, O’Dell has seen charter amendments outspent 50 to 1 by corporate interests. Sometimes, state pre-emption laws are already in effect, shutting down a municipality’s ability to “home rule.”

These rebukes re-illustrate the problem. “Our whole structure of government, our system of law, is taking away rights of people and giving them to industry,” O’Dell says.

But Miller is undeterred. “It’s a movement,” she says. “It’s about growing a movement.”

Joey Horan is a writer based in Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at

For more on the Western Lake Erie Basin, consider In the Watershed, A Journey Down the Maumee River, from Belt Publishing.