Forum called in response to northwest Ohio fish kills

2017-09-12 | The Joplin Globe

Sept. 12--A wide-ranging discussion about last month's three major fish kills in the western Lake Erie watershed prompted one of Ohio's top agriculture officials to concede Monday that a lot more work needs to be done to keep oxygen-robbing manure from getting into area streams.

John Schlichter, Ohio Department of Natural Resources deputy director, cited efforts the state farming industry has voluntarily taken to reduce manure releases and phosphorus discharges in general during a two-hour forum sponsored by the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.

Nearly 18,000 fertilizer applicators have been certified since the 2014 Toledo water crisis crippled the metro region's water supply. Ohio has 75,000 farms, but the certification is only for operators who apply fertilizer on 50 acres or more. It is not known how many of those exist, Mr. Schlichter said.

He admitted a lot more work needs to be done, though, after Dave Spangler, a Lake Erie charter boat captain who frequently lobbies for better water quality, said the western basin now looks sick with the lake's annual bout of algae in full bloom.

Mr. Spangler said he got his most recent visual during a fishing trip Monday morning.

"I represent a lot of folks who are very upset about this situation," Mr. Spangler said about last month's fish kills in Williams, Allen, and Hardin counties. "The lake is in terrible shape. It's terrible. Just terrible. There's no other way to put it. Whatever's going on, we've not done enough and we need a lot more help."

The Kasich administration, acting on the wishes of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, has steadfastly remained committed to voluntary incentives for agriculture while ignoring demands from environmental groups to declare western Lake Erie as impaired, a move that could give it more power to crack down on releases under the federal Clean Water Act.

But even the administration's point man for Lake Erie programs, Karl Gebhardt, often targeted by Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie for his former career as a farm bureau lobbyist, said the state may have little choice but to get tougher with "the knuckleheads still out there."

"I know it's nice to be the nice guy. But sometimes we need to be more forceful," Mr. Gebhardt, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency deputy director for water resources and Ohio Lake Erie Commission executive director, said.

Mr. Schlichter and Mr. Gebhardt were joined by Rich Carter, Ohio Department of Natural Resources' executive administrator of fish management, at the special TMACOG event in response to the rash of fish kills, which ranged from 14,600 fish dead in Hardin County to 36,800 dead in Allen County. A fourth major manure release was documented in Mercer County, but no fish carcasses were found.

The releases are believed to have been caused by rogue operators spreading manure outside of times allowed by state law based on impending rain forecasts.

Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada, the event moderator and chair of TMACOG's water quality council, began the session by stating specifics of those events would not be discussed because of ongoing investigations, which Mr. Schlichter and Mr. Carter said would likely be completed in a few more weeks.

In a related matter, the state of Ohio is taking public comment on an action plan it wrote for Lake Erie in response to a 2015 agreement Ohio made with Michigan and Ontario to reduce algae-growing phosphorus by 40 percent. Verbal comments are being taken 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center, with written comments accepted through Sept. 25. A second hearing is being held Wednesday night in Painesville.

The document shows 87 percent of the Maumee River watershed's phosphorus comes from non-point sources. Mr. Gebhardt told The Blade non-point sources are mostly, though not entirely, agricultural.

Mr. Gebhardt urged attendees to lobby Congress for a special Lake Erie "carve-out" to be inserted into the 2018 Farm Bill, which is again expected to provide billions of dollars in compensation to those in the agricultural industry who embrace better farming techniques. He said he hopes there is a special focus on soil and water conservation for farms in the Great Lakes region.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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