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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Environmentally Impaired

May 5, 2017

TOLEDO, Ohio – Few people know Lake Erie as well as Jeffery Reutter, the recently retired director of the Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory on the lake.

He’s shown me a picture of his hand covered with toxic algae when he was a graduate student in 1971 – and that same hand covered again nearly half a century later, in 2014, the year cyanobacteria from toxic algae blooms made the water in Toledo and part of Michigan’s Monroe County unsafe to drink.

A few weeks ago, at a “Farmers Together” forum on saving Lake Erie, I asked him what would happen if President Trump’s budget ending all funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and slashing funds for the EPA becomes reality.

The scientist, who is anything but an alarmist, responded instantly. “We can no longer count on Lake Erie producing safe drinking water for the 11 million people it now serves.”

That’s the bottom line. Erie, the warmest, shallowest and second-smallest of all the Great Lakes is indeed in danger.

The forum I moderated in Tontogany, Ohio, was aimed at getting farmers to take action to reduce the amount of phosphorus pouring into the lake, both from fertilizer and from massive amounts of manure produced by huge factory farms.

Whether that would be enough to reduce toxic algae blooms is debatable, and whether this can be done voluntarily is doubtful. Meindert VanDenHengel , the owner of a huge hog CAFO, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, told me the problem wasn’t so much the so-called “factory farms” like his.

“They regulate CAFOs, farms that have at least 2,500 animals. But you have one hog fewer, and they don’t,” he said.

Whether that’s the case or not, the lake does seem to be in danger, with few signs the crisis will get better soon. This is not, of course, the first time Lake Erie’s been in trouble.

Back in the 1970s, there were similar algae blooms, other pollution, and some commentators actually pronounced the lake dead. But people got serious about cleaning it up – and the sparkling waters of Lake Erie came back.

Can the lake be saved again? “Well, this will be much harder,” Reutter said. “Before, the problems were largely caused by improper disposal of (human) sewage.”

Wastewater treatment plants were built and modernized, and raw sewage stopped pouring into the lake.

But eliminating the effects of vast amounts of fertilizer already poured into the earth and water will, in a best-case scenario, take far longer.

If there is a hopeful sign, it is that more and more people seem to be worrying about the lake. Markie Miller, a Michigan native and a graduate student in environmental studies at the University of Idaho, regularly drives to Toledo to try to get signatures to ask city council to enact a Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

Her group, Toledoans for Safe Water, wants to “prevent and end legalized harm” by giving the lake “personhood” status in law, and giving the city the power to say no to any corporate projects that could damage Lake Erie.

That may be an admirable goal – but Toledo controls only a very small chunk of the Lake Erie shoreline. In all, four states and Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, all border the lake. Their governments all have different ideas about the lake. Michigan, for example, has officially filed a declaration with the EPA that all of Lake Erie is environmentally “impaired.”

But Ohio Gov. John Kasich is refusing to do the same. Frustrated, a coalition of environmental, conservation and business groups have filed a lawsuit April 25 in federal court asking that the Environmental Protection Agency reject Ohio’s decision not to designate the lake as impaired.

What may be needed, however, is something much stronger. Possibly our best chance at saving Lake Erie, and perhaps the other Great Lakes, is a formal treaty between the United States and Canada committing both countries to strong measures that would stave off environmental disaster.

That may not be a politically popular idea these days.

But go read about the Aral Sea, once a thriving freshwater lake two-thirds the size of Lake Erie, which was totally destroyed by the horrendous environmental policies of the old Soviet Union. Much of it is now the Aralkum desert.

Don’t be so sure it can’t happen here.

***

Deserves another shot? Two weeks ago, I wrote about three criminals in the legislature, all Democrats, who have been tolerated by their party’s leadership. One Virgil Smith Jr., was recently released from nine months in jail after assaulting his ex-wife and shooting up her car with as assault rifle.

Smith did much less time than he might have, because of a plea bargain agreement that stipulated he not run for any office for at least five years. But that part of the deal was voided by the trial judge, and the Michigan Court of Appeals refused to rule on this, saying it appeared to be moot, “because defendant voluntarily resigned his seat and appears to have no intention of running for public office during his term of probation.”

Later that same day, Smith turned in petitions to run for Detroit City Council this year. You can’t make this stuff up.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

May 4, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 James Olson // May 5, 2017 at 9:56 am

    Thank you for moving the discussion beyond the current political hapless approaches. You’re right, it won’t happen voluntarily, and the regulations that do exist have gaping holes or the will to strengthen. As for “personhood” for Lake Erie and Great Lakes, citizens can protect that through the long-standing public trust doctrine that applies to the Great Lakes and all tributary navigable rivers and streams. Ohio and all eight Great Lakes states recognize this common law principle. States hold title to bottomlands and waters in trust for citizens, who are beneficiaries, and have a legal right to enforce the trust. Under the public trust Lake Erie and its ecosystem, fishery, public uses, including drinking water, cannot be materially impaired now or in perpetuity. Activities in water or on land near the water that result in impairment, like toxic algal blooms, violate this public trust. Government has affirmative duty to enforce; if not citizens have the right to do so. Courts can order restriction on activities to prevent the phosphorous loading of Lake Erie. It’s time for those responsible to step up and obey the law of Lake Erie. For more information, go to http://www.flowforwater.org.

  • 2 Anagnorisis // May 5, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    The proposition has arisen that the Jordan River and lake estuary in East Jordan might also be negatively affected by a new iron works construction near the spring that feeds the river behind the SEVEN SKI INN of recent conflict. The foundry uses lake water to cool its cast iron process and claims there is no pollution to lake water which is pumped back into the lake. The upshot is that industry of all kinds as well as recreation creates runoff into the waterways that is often irrevocable. Politically we find no action of any consequence to curb this, no more than acts against political corruption’s stranglehold.

  • 3 Jim Olson // May 5, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you for moving the discussion beyond the current political hapless approaches. You’re right, it won’t happen voluntarily, and the regulations that do exist have gaping holes or the will to strengthen. As for “personhood” for Lake Erie and Great Lakes, citizens can protect that through the long-standing public trust doctrine that applies to the Great Lakes and all tributary navigable rivers and streams. Ohio and all eight Great Lakes states recognize this common law principle. States hold title to bottomlands and waters in trust for citizens, who are beneficiaries, and have a legal right to enforce the trust. Under the public trust Lake Erie and its ecosystem, fishery, public uses, including drinking water, cannot be materially impaired now or in perpetuity. Activities in water or on land near the water that result in impairment, like toxic algal blooms, violate this public trust. Government has affirmative duty to enforce; if not citizens have the right to do so. Courts can order restriction on activities to prevent the phosphorous loading of Lake Erie. It’s time for those responsible to step up and obey the law of Lake Erie. For more information, go to http://www.flowforwater.org.


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