In early May, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Toledo, Ohio, quietly let the Lake Erie Bill of Rights—an internationally recognized effort, and the first to protect the rights of an ecosystem—die in court.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Markie Miller, a Toledo resident and organizer with Toledoans for Safe Water, one of the groups that helped bring the legislation to life.
In 2014, for several sweltering summer days, the city’s tap water was deemed unusable due to microcystin contamination from an enormous toxic algal bloom raging in the southwestern part of the lake. Over the ensuing years, Miller and her colleagues strove to empower citizens to hold polluters accountable.
Their effort was rewarded in February 2019, when a small but mighty group of citizens voted to give the lake and its expansive watershed the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The action allowed citizens the right to file lawsuits on behalf of the body of water, essentially regulating runoff from large-scale animal agriculture and row crop operations in addition to other industrial and residential polluters.
Immediately after the vote, a farmer sued the city, and then in February 2020, a federal judge ruled the legislation invalid. The city of Toledo appealed in late March, and dropped the appeal in early May citing “budgetary constraints.”
Miller says the city’s recent nonchalance in defending a measure voted for by its citizenry was stinging to her and her peers. “If they had communicated with us a little bit more, if they had been more vocal, we could have helped,” she says. “Instead, to watch them quietly betray us, it was absolutely infuriating.”
While Miller and other environmental advocates grapple with what to do next, an ambitious plan from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to prevent farm pollution in the state’s waterways has begun rolling out. Called H2Ohio, the initiative targets the northwest portion of the state in its first stage of implementation, with the goal of addressing Lake Erie’s near-constant summertime algal blooms. As evidenced in Toledo, the mounting tension from the blooms’ presence has become an increasingly powerful splinter between factions.
As the citizen-led effort behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights withers, will the state’s investment in prevention turn the increasingly blue-green tide clogging the region’s waterways? Or will the voluntary measures be inadequate, even if they manage to stay funded at a time when most state budgets are struggling?
Beyond a Catchy Name
At a meeting in February in northwest Ohio, a line of pick-up trucks and cars snaked down a rural road on the edge of a reception center parking lot packed to the brim. Inside the space, a banquet room was filled with dozens of farm families.
Addressing impaired waterways is on policy agendas across the United States, and programs have been activated in states including Delaware and New York. In the agricultural region surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, which has faced decades of dead zones and other pollution, farmers have adopted measures to reduce their runoff in hopes of preempting regulation.
Already, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—much of which is attributable to agricultural runoff from the American corn belt travelling through the Mississippi River watershed—is expected to grow larger than normal in 2020, impacting nature and industry.
And H2Ohio isn’t the first time Ohio has attempted a clean water effort, leaving some farmers weary, aware of the ongoing discussions in government, academia, and industry on how best to monitor their practices. Former Governor John Kasich allocated more than $3 billion to water quality efforts during his eight years in office, but most of that funding went to wastewater treatment improvements.
Ohio policymakers—as well as other states and territories sharing Lake Erie’s border—have established a benchmark to reduce nutrient runoff into the lake by 40 percent by 2025. H2Ohio’s $172 million budget for the first two years of the program is confirmed as a first step in addressing this lofty reduction goal. However, more money will be needed: The organizers envision the massive multi-year endeavor funneling close to $1 billion over the next decade into initiatives that will improve water quality across the state.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture will manage the funding that directly impacts growers in northwest Ohio farm counties—officially $30 of the $172 million allotted for the program, but that total is actually closer to $50 million when funding is added for a similar effort in the region called the Clean Lake 2020 Plan.
In the banquet space on that cold February evening, some of the farmers seemed fatigued from years of simmering tensions with environmental groups about how to best reduce runoff from their fields. At a foundational level, many American farmers view themselves as environmental stewards and would like to be recognized as such.
Through H2Ohio, approved growers will be offered money and technical support to implement practices on their acreage that reduces phosphorus runoff. Farmers will be able to apply for funds to help them use a number of practices including, better incorporating manure into the soil, applying fertilizer under the top soil, and planting cover crops. Rates average from $2 to $60 per acre, depending on the practice. The remaining money in the H2Ohio budget will be used to create or expand wetlands while also addressing failing sewage systems and corroded pipelines in a variety of state communities.
Jeff Keller, a district technician with the Soil & Water Conservation District in Mercer County, where fields planted with corn and soybeans line most roads, says an extensive number of growers have shown interest in the program. “This is by far the biggest program—the most important—that I’ve ever seen,” Keller said on a mid-March day before H2Ohio registration closed later that month. “It has created a lot of attention,” he added.
To begin with, the H2Ohio program is only available in northwest Ohio. And, according to Dorothy Pelanda, the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, 2,000 growers in the region, representing over 1.1 million acres of the Lake Erie watershed, have expressed interest. Despite shake-ups from the COVID-19 pandemic, Pelanda says that plans are still underway at the state agriculture agency to kick-off the program this year.
Addressing a Complicated History
Ohio’s watersheds, rivers, and lakes have borne the brunt of the state’s deep ties to industry and agriculture.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this heritage was the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s stretch of the Cuyahoga River, where oil-slicked debris ignited from the sparks coming off a passing train. This was not the first time the polluted river had caught ablaze, but national coverage spurred the passage of the National Environment Pollution Act by Congress and shortly after the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In recent years, the agriculture-rich northwest portion of the state has seen bodies of water—such as Grand Lake St. Marys near Celina, Ohio—officially closed to leisure and economic activity due to blue-green algae rich in toxic microcystin. These growths are often attributed by excess nutrients that run off farm fields in the heavily rural region. For Lake Erie in particular, researchers across the state agree that agricultural activity is responsible for 85 percent of the phosphorus in the freshwater lake.
Billed by the DeWine administration as a “collaborative approach to the issues facing Ohio’s water,” H2Ohio involves an unlikely array of partners. States agencies like the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency are at the heart of the endeavor while the engagement of a slew of industry groups, as well as food, farming, and environmental advocates is seen as critical to the initiative’s success.
According to Pelanda, the program looks to bring diverse stakeholders together. The state agriculture director refers to a group called the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative, which is supporting the work of H2Ohio and helped to formulate a certification program for participating farmers. The entity includes representation from the agricultural, academic, and environmental communities and, Pelanda says, this unique tribe of voices is working at an unprecedented scale.
“At one time, the environmental groups had been viewed by farmers as a real threat and enemy,” she says. “Once that group came together,” Pelanda notes in reference to the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative, “and said, ‘We speak with one voice and we are here to support H2Ohio,’ I think that was really key to engaging farmers in the program.”
“We’re all responsible for our water resources and the focused messaging on this in H2Ohio is really important,” says Jessica D’Ambrosio, agriculture project director at Ohio’s branch of The Nature Conservancy, a partner in the endeavor. “The program gives us all a chance to play our role. whether we live in cities, suburbs, or we are on farm fields.”
D’Ambrosio says the program approaches water quality investment in the state as a conservation journey rather than a punishment. That’s vital, she says, because recent calls for mandatory conservation measures for farmers from environmental and community advocates has caused tension and deepened urban-rural divisions.
“[H2Ohio] gives us all a chance to play our role. whether we live in cities, suburbs, or we are on farm fields.”
To participate in H2Ohio, a farmer must have a nutrient management plan in place and have completed soil testing on their farm’s acreage in the last four years. Experts like Jeff Keller at Mercer County, Ohio’s Soil & Water Conservation District played an important role this spring, meeting with farmers to assess and formulate nutrient management plans and plot a way forward for farms to participate.
Amy Brennan, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio office, says the science-based focus of the program has been key to her group’s participation. “We’re trying practices that there have been models of, that there have been edge-of-field studies on, and which have actually shown water quality benefits,” she says about H2Ohio’s 10 phosphorus reduction impact initiatives eligible for support.
Many of the practices incentivized through the program, like cover cropping, which is well-documented for its commitment to soil quality, already have early farm adopters due to years of advocacy from local conservation partners like the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and federal groups like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Some farmers have already received funding for similar conservation endeavors through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA’s) Conservation Stewardship Program (CRP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). However, according to Keller in Mercer County, farmers are not able to apply for H2Ohio funding on the same acreage where they receive federal conservation money.
Though some farmers in the area know about conservation practices, according to Pelanda, the state agriculture director, there is still much to learn. She says that data gathered on farms will help to drive program priorities in the coming years. “Everyone who is part of this program acknowledges that this first year is going to be a real learning experience,” she says.
Planning for an Uncertain Future
Although Governor DeWine announced $775 million in coronavirus-related cuts to the Ohio budget in mid-May, H2Ohio’s $172 million initial two-year budget has remained relatively unscathed. But, as the program kicks off, all eyes are on the long term.
Phosphorus built up over the course of several decades; that means the solution is not going to happen overnight.
“It didn’t take a year to build up this phosphorus loading, it was over the course of several decades,” says Joy Mulinex, director of the Lake Erie Commission, an entity that ensures state government policy coordination to protect the body of water. “And, that also means that the solution is not going to happen overnight.”
Organizers are concerned about possible lingering economic complications from the pandemic. However, Pelanda says she’s optimistic about H2Ohio, noting that many of the groups involved in the program are already canvassing state legislators to further educate them about the program and plan for the future.
“Engaging farmers in what they know will be long-term practices is going to be significant for building relationships side-by-side with environmental groups and researchers,” Pelanda says.
Miller of Toledoans for Safe Water, says, however, that the opinion of a portion of Ohio’s citizenry has been forgotten in DeWine’s plan. “We weren’t saying that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights should be the only policy in place,” she notes about her group’s quest to hold government, businesses, and individuals accountable. “It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario.”
From her lens on the ground, Miller also voices frustration that H2Ohio doesn’t limit new agricultural activity in an already stressed watershed, and it’s only focused on row crops, not on animal agriculture. “The [ag] industry is still focused on growth,” she says about the limitations of the state’s plan. “There are no rules saying no more permits or CAFOS [concentrated animal feeding operations] in the area.”
Further, Miller bristles at the fact that the state has so much to invest in a voluntary program that has no guarantee of reducing the overall nutrient load in the lake. “It’s very frustrating to be told, ‘You’re just wasting city resources [about the Lake Erie Bill of Rights],’” she says. “How much money is being spent on this? And, Toledo is claiming that they don’t have enough money to defend a law that citizens passed. We have this skewed version of what’s financially acceptable.”
As the state pushes forward with H2Ohio and producers line up to participate, only time will tell whether the program will truly turn the blue-green tide. With yet another algal bloom forecast for western Lake Erie in 2020, the clock is ticking.