John C. (Jack) Fisher, Ohio Farm Bureau executive vice president

We Can Fix This

In the 1920s, Lake Erie was plagued by mobster corpses. Bad guys, done in by rival bootleggers, were dumped in the Detroit River, drifted downstream and washed ashore.
In the 1960s, noxious seepage from the famously flammable Cuyahoga River led the lake to be labeled a “gigantic cesspool.”

At times it’s been overfished and subjected to invasive species.

Yet today, 3 million Ohioans drink from Lake Erie. It yields more sport fish than the other Great Lakes combined. It provides 10,000 jobs and $40 billion in economic activity. Clearly, the lake can take whatever we throw at, or in it. Which is good, because its resilience is being tested again.

The challenge this time is too much phosphorus. The nutrient feeds blooms of blue-green algae that harm the environment, can be toxic to humans and animals and ruin the lake economy. Lake Erie’s not alone; Grand Lake St. Marys and other waterbodies face similar predicaments.

Phosphorus gets into the lakes from lawn fertilizers, municipal sewage, septic systems and other origins. Significant sources are manure and commercial fertilizers used by farmers.

Ironically, some of farming’s most environmentally friendly practices are having unintended consequences. These practices, recommended by scientists and required by the public, prevent erosion, control drainage, boost yields and reduce the burning of fossil fuels. But we’re now learning they also allow phosphorus to move from the field to the lake.

Farmers and agribusinesses are attacking the problem. They’ve raised $1 million for research. They’re studying new farming techniques. They’re encouraging fellow farmers to accept responsibility and act responsibly. Today’s efforts will mean cleaner lakes tomorrow.

Well, actually, it won’t. It could take many years, which is not welcome news when we want the problem gone now. But should that really be the goal?

An overnight fix sounds attractive, but consider: Eliminating municipal sewage escapes will cost tens of millions of your tax dollars. New home septic systems can run into the tens of thousands. And an impulsive cut in farm fertilizer would simply trade one problem for another.

Eliminating phosphorus could eventually cut farm yields by 70 percent. To be clear, this isn’t a prediction; it’s a caution. Reducing agriculture’s impact on water quality also will impact employment, tax revenues and our ability to feed our families and the world.
What are the smart trade-offs? We don’t yet know, but we have enough smart people around our state to get us where we need to be.

Farm Bureau is preparing to lead a comprehensive examination of Ohio’s water challenges and opportunities. This initiative, called Healthy Water Ohio, will  address broad questions of water quality and quantity for drinking, recreation and commerce.
We’ll draw on the expertise of environmentalists, business leaders, government, scholars and Ohioans such as you.

Farmers are taking the lead because we have some experience in solving big natural resource challenges. The Dust Bowl rallied farmers around systems to protect the soil.Energy shortages spurred more fuel efficient food production. Endangered species have been replenished by creating farm habitat. And today some producers are farming to positively impact the global climate. So, we’ll figure out this water thing.

The lesson from Lake Erie is this: Nature can be harmed accidentally. Fixing it is a function of intent. Farmers and Farm Bureau will do what’s necessary to protect both food production and water, which in Ohio, are equally precious resources.