John C. "Jack" Fisher

Watershed Moment

More precisely, a toxic blue-green bloom entered Toledo’s Lake Erie intake, and 500,000 people were told “do not drink the water.”

Shocking, but also inspirational, as community members came to the aid of neighbors and strangers. Business and labor mobilized, farmers opened their wells, others opened their wallets and churches and charities rushed to assist. Perhaps most uplifting was the sight of political partisans working side by side for the good of the whole.

Then, a mere two days later, the blamestorming began.

With the taps back on, a flood of fingerpointing ensued. Not by Toledo’s resilient citizens. By those with a backside to protect or an agenda to promote. Faulty water systems, farm fertilizers, public sector inaction and private sector self-interest lead the hit parade of culprits. The recriminations were disheartening but not unexpected. If asked, I’d have advised that in the aftermath of challenging events, you can spend time fixing the blame or go about fixing the problem.

The latter is how three other Ohio communities have responded to situations similar to Toledo’s. Grand Lake St. Marys, Indian Lake and Buckeye Lake are important centerpieces of their local economies. Each has faced significant environmental challenges. And with all three, the stewards of these lakes have decided that collaboration trumps confrontation.

“It’s characteristic of the fiber of our communities; when there’s a crisis, everyone pitches in,” says Milt Miller, who leads restoration efforts for Grand Lake St. Marys in west-central Ohio. The lake, like Erie, is a poster child for the effects of algae. Miller says the cooperation among residents, businesses and farmers has been “beyond expectations in terms of the entire region pulling together in a common cause.”

When Grand Lake St. Marys’ algal blooms made national news, Miller says the community raised an initial $660,000 “to pay for science to guide us on how to fix the lake.” The resulting action plan includes aeration, dredging and new farming practices, which are showing results. “It didn’t happen overnight; it’s not going to be fixed overnight,” Miller says.

In nearby Indian Lake, farmer Frank Phelps helped start a lake improvement group 25 years ago when soil erosion was the challenge. Community leaders helped local farmers try new farming techniques, which proved to deliver both good crops and less sedimentation. Phelps credits their collaborative approach as a big reason why today Indian Lake isn’t hampered by blooms.

Buckeye Lake, east of Columbus, is fed by 77 miles of streams, creeks and old canals. Jonathan Ferbrache of the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District walked every inch, documenting data for a nutrient reduction project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, a Farm Bureau grant and local sources. The civic organizations, townships, farmers and conservationists found no single challenge, thus no single solution, meaning that preserving their resource had to be a shared responsibility.

You will see how Farm Bureau members intend to accept, not deflect, agriculture’s share of responsibility. And while $1 million is a big deal, our obligation isn’t primarily financial. It’s moral. We’re accountable to Ohioans who have many needs. As my friend, OSU’s Vice President and ag Dean Bruce McPheron says, “People want clean water. They also want three meals a day.” Farm Bureau is committed to delivering both. As several lake communities have already proven, carping doesn’t work. Cooperation does. 

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