The Lake Erie Reckoning Is Here: Federal Government and Ohio Give Cold Shoulder to Regional Water Supply


Maumee Bay, August 2014 - ERIC SANDY
  • Maumee Bay, August 2014
Amid the wildly shifting tectonics of federal government, there's a small patch of land that rests gently against the largest body of freshwater in the world. This land is home to Eastern Conference champs the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as tens of millions of American citizens, from Rochester to Duluth. We call the body of water, collectively, the Great Lakes, though that almost seems like an antiquated term these days.

The federal government this week declined to label western Lake Erie "impaired," a legal designation that would have triggered a deeper investigation into the growing problem of algae blooms and a specific plan to target and eliminate the source pollutants.

By most ecological accounts, the health of Lake Erie is deteriorating at a rapid clip. Recall that in 2014 the city of Toledo was forced to shut down its water supply, stranding some 500,000 people in a sort of limbo without potable, clean tap water. The algae bloom problem was particularly acute that year, and, whether it's this summer or sometime in the future, experts warn inaction will lead to ripe conditions for a sequel. (Algae blooms turn Lake Erie water into toxic green slime. They're most directly caused by nearby agricultural phosphorous runoff.)

The news this week was met with sky-high raised eyebrows, because the state of Michigan had declared its portion of western Lake Erie "impaired" last year. Ohio, meanwhile, did not. The Ohio EPA and the governor have repeatedly fallen back on the vitality of voluntary incentives; regulations ushered in by an impairment designation, they argue, would only prove to be obstacles to really cleaning up the lake.

It's probably obvious to any weekend fisher that, on a broad scale, Ohio hasn't really put a dent in that mission.

(In Toledo, Lucas County commissioners have vocally insisted that the impairment designation is incredibly important for the health of their constituents and others, drawing a sharp line in the sand against state leadership.)

The federal government couldn't care less. Despite the obvious contradiction in the Ohio/Michigan opinions, the feds have cast their lot with Ohio's proponents of inaction. The U.S. EPA did not deny Michigan's claim that its waters are impaired, which makes the decision so much more confusing at face value. Lucas County commissioners, again, pointed out that the feds "can't have it both ways."

The impairment news was joined this week, of course, with President Trump's latest budget proposal, which suggests the government do away entirely with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, points out the inherent shortcomings of that budget proposal, asking, "what could be more basic than restoring the Great Lakes and protecting safe, clean drinking water?"

In the event Congress approves the Trump budget in part or in full, the stash of public resources available to improve the health of Lake Erie will vastly diminish, and the effects will be felt in due time.

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