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Lake Erie's water crisis, then and now

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/22/14 @ 11:15am  |  Posted in Clean water, Water

The Toledo water crisis may have fallen off the front page of the news, but not before a prime suspect was identified. The deadly toxin that shut off the tap for 500,000 people in August comes from algae in Lake Erie fed by fertilizer running off of big, conventional farms in Northern Ohio.

The mouth of the Cuyahoga<br />Modern environmental regulations have greatly reduced industrial pollution, but we are still a long way from healthy and sustainable water resources.Lake Erie today<br />The eastern basin of Lake Erie, at Mentor Headlands.

At least as much ink was spilled trying to understand how Toledo's crisis could have happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

First, it wasn't news to those who’ve followed the ups-and-downs of Lake Erie’s water issues since the 1960s when pollution levels stirred the horror of a nation watching the Cuyahoga River catch fire and Lake Erie turn a peculiar shade of red. The 1960-70s water crisis was as much a result of Cleveland’s industrial pollution, but over-use of phosphorous in household detergents contributed.

This week, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, writing for The New York Times, explained that, a focus on regulating what goes into our waters turned a dark chapter in Lake Erie’s history into a national source of pride. The Clean Water Act was born out of this crisis, and as a result, stewardship of Lake Erie brought it back from the brink of calamity to a clean, reliable source. It was perhaps America’s greatest environmental success story. It did ask industry to innovate, and in the process of getting cleaner and more efficient, industrial users of water in Cleveland have, at least, understood that environment is a real question, with consequences.

The history of environmental degradation and recovery in Cleveland supplies an important lesson for preventing more Toledo water shut downs, Krugman asserts. It spurred Congress and industry to act together to set limits on how much phosphorous could be put into household detergents. Many of the states surrounding the Great Lakes took the issue seriously enough to ban phosphorous outright in the early 1990s. Did you know that part of the state of Ohio— roughly the northern quarter of the state—adopted the phosphorous ban?

Of course, not having the entire state of Ohio on board sends a confusing signal to industrial farms and leads to real enforcement issues. Dangerous levels of phosphorous are still spilling from farms and from outside of the banned areas into the Maumee River and the lake.

And so, until Ohio can agree on a more effective regulatory framework, the Lake Erie watershed will continue to suffer this scourge of farm-based pollution. Krugman links to a 1999 report that shows how phosphorous was tamed in other parts of the Great Lakes. He also calls for common sense regulations to put a halt to the indiscriminate use of synthetic fertilizers which are turning the clock back to the 1970s on Lake Erie’s water quality.

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A.M.
2 years ago

I'm interested in knowing more about how the northern quarter of Ohio adopted the phosphorous ban. Did individual political subdivisions located in the northern quarter of Ohio adopt the ban or did Ohio put the ban in place for the northern quarter of Ohio?

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