By Timothy Cama - 08/05/14 06:00 AM EDT
A ban on drinking water in and around Toledo, Ohio, that was lifted on Monday is calling new attention to efforts to reduce pollution from agricultural runoff that flows into rivers and lakes.
While federal and state rules limit runoff pollution, environmentalists see Toledo’s crisis as a major example of the need for further restrictions.
“By and large, pollution from agriculture has not been as strictly regulated as pollution from other sources,” she said, adding that Toledo’s crisis calls for “greater vigilance” on issues of runoff pollution.
Officials and scientists believe that runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus, two substances that are common in agricultural fertilizer, intensified the seasonal blue-green algae bloom in western Lake Erie, where Toledo gets its municipal water.
The algae created dangerously high levels of the toxin microcystin, which authorities discovered in high concentrations in city water Friday night. The city asked hundreds of thousands of residents not to drink the water until Monday morning, while state and federal emergency officials brought in bottled water.
Toledo’s water ban echoed an incident earlier in the year in Charleston, W.Va., when a chemical used to clean coal leaked into the river where the city took its water, leading to widespread drinking bans. But Toledo’s issues were caused by a variety of factors including the runoff, not by a single leak like Charleston’s.
Jon Devine, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said better protection of bodies of water is the least the country could do to prevent future water pollution problems.
“Certainly, the laws and our rules can be strengthened with respect to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in a number of ways,” he said.
Environmental groups want new rules dictating the ingredients in fertilizer, the amount of fertilizer farmers could use or the places particular nutrients could be applied.
The agriculture community recognizes its role in the problem, but would rather avoid new rules.
Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers take many precautions in an effort to avoid wasting fertilizer and other nutrients.
“We try to apply the best science possible. But we’re still dealing with a natural system,” he said.
Parrish called new regulations a “short-term solution.”
If the government encouraged farmers to use more exact methods for applying nutrients, that would be a long-term solution, he said.
Toledo’s water crisis came as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering its Waters of the United States rule, which would ensure that streams that run dry half the year would be subject to protections under the Clean Water Act.
Green groups say this rule would provide additional protections for the nation’s water supply.
“EPA and the Corps have proposed a rule that would guarantee that tributary streams and many wetlands around the country that are in legal limbo today would be protected against destruction and pollution by the programs of the Clean Water Act,” Devine said.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) recognized that agricultural runoff likely played a role in the crisis but did not call for government rules. Portman spent much of the weekend in Toledo helping deliver water and resolve the problem.
“The science is pretty clear that it’s nutrients in the water that cause the growth of these algal blooms, in addition to the weather conditions, how warm the water is and so on,” he said.
Portman called for the state and federal governments to research the issue and how to mitigate it.
“It’s a complicated issue, and that’s why I want to make sure we have the best science and we put it to use right away to be able to come up with better information about why these blooms are happening and where, specifically, some of these nutrients are coming from,” he said.