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Destroying Lake Erie

Jack Lessenberry

You might remember two years ago, when people in Toledo couldn’t drink the water for a couple days because it had been poisoned by toxic cyanobacteria in Lake Erie.

That was terrifying, and we were told all sorts of precautions were being taken so that this would never happen again. Well, guess what. According to a number of respected environmental activists I interviewed last week, we are allowing so-called factory farms to dump hundreds of millions of untreated manure and liquid waste on land not far from Lake Erie, often when the ground is still frozen.

That means a lot of it eventually flows into the lake.

What that does, according to Pam Taylor, a full-time volunteer with a group called the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, is fill the lake with phosphorus and nitrates, nutrients for exactly the kinds of bacteria that have the potential to poison the water.

Ms. Taylor has even more reason to care about the Lake Erie watershed area than most of us do.

Her ancestors came to mostly rural Lenawee County in 1837, the same year Michigan became a state, and they’ve been farming there ever since. She has a vested interest in protecting and strengthening rural Michigan’s culture and fragile economy.

And you can’t do that if the water in the area’s major lake is poisoned. What Taylor has been doing these days is important but hardly glamorous; as she puts it, she studies poop. Specifically, the immense volumes of waste produced by factory farms, technically known as CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. These are places that keep huge numbers of animals, some in absolutely horrible conditions, to produce meat as cheaply as possible.

What she does is to monitor and track the connections between the manure CAFOs produce and the harmful algae blooms that form in western Lake Erie. Michigan does have fewer of these than Ohio or Indiana, she told me, but she doesn’t want to let those responsible off the hook by saying, as some do, “this is an Ohio problem.”

What her group hopes to do is demonstrate beyond doubt that these giant installations are the main reason for the pollution. Taylor taught business in high school in Adrian for 21 years before retiring five years ago.

“I am not against farmers making a living,” she told me and added, “I think people should have the right to operate their own businesses.”

But she thinks that CAFOs are not only the problem, they are only viable because they are propped up with expensive agricultural subsidies politicians refuse to end.

“You have these farms with 4,000 cows producing as much waste as a city of 80,000 people. Imagine if the farm had to pay the true expense of dealing with that.”

So far, she says, she’s had little success trying to get our lawmakers to face the problem. “The Michigan Legislature has been horrible,” she said. But she plans to keep trying to raise public consciousness about Lake Erie. After all, what else can she do?

I don’t know if she remembers Pogo, the comic strip character who used to say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I do know we should all do more to help her win a ceasefire.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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