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Are farmers' profits more important than our water?

An aerial view of algae blooms in Lake Erie.

Last week, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency announced that efforts to decrease those potentially toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie aren’t working. When I read that, let’s say I wasn’t exactly surprised. I moderated a large forum on this subject in Tontogany, Ohio last year.

The forum was designed to educate people about the scope of the problem, and to persuade farms to voluntarily reduce how much phosphorus they were using as fertilizer.

I came away realizing that the problem was far worse than I imagined, and very skeptical that farmers would be willing or maybe even able to make the kind of sacrifices required.

When I saw the report, I reached out to a woman who for me is an authentic hero: Pam Taylor, who grew up partly on a farm in Lenawee County, and whose family has been farming there since 1837, the year Michigan became a state. For years, she’s been concerned about manure runoffs into Lake Erie from giant factory farms, and has tried to get our attention.

The problem is that the manure contains large amounts of phosphorous, a major nutrient that helps cause the algae population explosion and the large “dead zone” in the lake where there is too little oxygen for anything to survive.

Pam had already seen the Ohio EPA report that efforts to decrease the amount of phosphorous had failed, and told me, “I was just as shocked at Captain Renault, when he found gambling taking place at Casablanca.” But she told me the problem was complex.

Some farmers have indeed gotten the message. Those who have been buying and using commercial fertilizer have stopped applying so much phosphorous.

But many more farmers use manure as fertilizer. Too many are planting corn every year, rather than rotating their crops, and she said, “Each time they apply enough manure nitrogen to grown one year of corn, they are also applying four years of phosphorus.”

What makes it worse, she said, is that there are millions of mostly unmapped drain tiles, some more than a century old, and they are very efficient at conveying the dissolved phosphorus into Lake Erie, which in turn contributes to the algal blooms.

While it is unsightly, that algae is not directly harmful to humans. But the cyanobacteria often associated with it can be extremely toxic – which is why, four years ago, nearly half a million people in Toledo and southern Michigan couldn’t drink or even bathe in the water for three days.

Regardless of precautions, that seems likely to happen again. Pam Taylor thinks there’s only one long-term solution. Most of the pollution comes from large factory farms, mainly dairy cattle, some of which produce as much waste a day as the entire city of Lansing.

Basically, Taylor said, if you want to save Lake Erie and our other waterways, the only way we can do that is to force factory farms to have their own wastewater treatment plants at the site that follow the same standards as those for municipal sewage plants.

Farmers would undoubtedly say that would be too expensive. But how costly do you think it would be for all of us to not have water we could drink or even bathe in?

Flint knows a little about that. I don’t think the rest of us want to find out.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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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