The buildup of nutrients in western Lake Erie can trigger algae growth – and contaminate drinking water in nearby cities. That happened as recently as 2014, when Toledo residents could not drink their water for two days.
Researchers say agriculture is largely to blame, so Ohio is requiring farmers to take special training. But it’s not clear that approach will work.
On a recent weekday, rows of farmers were gathered in an Ohio State University extension classroom. Everyone had a training manual, and a teacher at the head of the room explained a PowerPoint projected on the board.
These farmers were here under a law passed in 2014. Most Ohio farmers are required to attend a three-hour training session, where they learn new ways to spread fertilizer. The goal is to minimize nutrient runoff into streams that lead to Lake Erie.
If they don’t take the training, they can face fines or even misdemeanor charges for not being certified.
So far, more than 12,600 farmers have been trained.
But in a conference call earlier this year, Ohio Department of Agriculture Director David Daniels says thousands still haven’t attended the class. “We believe that there are probably between 6,000 and 10,000 more people that need to get certified before the deadline this fall,” he said.
That deadline is September 30. And with so many left to train, Ohio State University has teamed with the Department of Agriculture to host more than 100 training sessions over the next six months.
Kristy Meyer of the Ohio Environmental Council wants the training to reach even more farmers, including those who use manure. Her organization is watching to see what happens after the September deadline.
“We'd really like to start to see Department of Agriculture going out doing random audits, seeing how we're doing with this training program,” explained Meyer.
Meyer says the training is just one part of the solution. “We need to come to the table and we need to pass some meaningful, but common sense standards to really solve this problem. It’s going to take common sense regulation.”
This training is one of the only requirements farmers have to face. Most management practices aimed at reducing runoff are voluntary.
Farmer Adam Kirian, who runs a grain and livestock farm in Hancock County, says anyone applying fertilizer should be certified. His farm is far from Lake Erie but streams in the area all drain into the lake.
“The rules that they’ve imposed or that they’ve enacted – they’ve changed some things that we can do, but nothing egregious,” he said. “Nothing that strayed too far away from the things that we were doing anyhow.”
Kirian says the training shows farmers are willing to do their part to resolve the runoff problem.
“It at least gives me some assurance that hey, I did what I’m supposed to,” he said. “I’m trying to follow the rules to the best of my ability.”
Kirian took the training class last year. He says some farmers might be waiting to pair it up with another certification.
Ohio state Sen. Cliff Hite, who sponsored the legislation back in 2014, admits there may be some farmers who call this training “over-regulation”. Hite himself faced pushback in his largely rural district back in the legislation’s early stages.
Yet Hite says the training is necessary for clean water in Ohio.
“I don’t think anybody likes going to [the training], but it’s going to make better practices take place. That’s what we want,” said Rep. Hite.
Ohio is one of only two Great Lakes states that requires this type of training. Indiana is the other.
Citing events like the 2014 Toledo water crisis and a similar situation in 2013 in Carroll Township, Meyer says Ohio should be leading the way.
“We have a real problem and we can’t turn a blind eye to it,” he said. “We need to lead the way, we need to show how this can be done.”
The International Joint Commission, a binational group that helps regulate the Great Lakes, says other states should follow Ohio and Indiana’s lead. The commission says there should be more regulations for farmers, instead of purely voluntary programs.
“We cannot control how much rain falls or what the summer will look like. There is nothing we can do; we don’t have control,” said Raj Bejankiwar, a scientist with the commission. “The one thing we can control is how much nutrients can get into the lake.”
Water quality in the Great Lakes is sure to be a topic of conversation as the commission holds public meetings around the region throughout March. In the U.S., meetings are being held in Detroit, Toledo and Buffalo.