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AgMag BLOG

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Down on the Farm: Where Toledo’s Water Crisis Began

Thursday, August 21, 2014

 

The chorus of voices implicating big agriculture in the Toledo drinking water crisis is growing. 

At a recent hearing hosted by the Lake Erie Legislative Caucus, Adam Rissien, director of agricultural and water policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, called for better agriculture practices to prevent pollution.

Following up in a guest column this week (Aug. 18) on the cleveland.com website, Rissien wrote:

It is essential to control all sources of nutrient pollution to our waterways, including urban sewer overflows and household sewage treatment systems. But the inescapable fact remains that agricultural practices are by far the least regulated of all the nutrient pollution sources. No farmer ever intends to do the wrong thing, and many are implementing good conservation practices. But many more need to follow their example.

In response to the Toledo crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state of Ohio are now throwing millions of dollars at Lake Erie to try to keep it from happening again. Unfortunately, that’s been tried before, and the results have become predictable.

For nearly 70 years, the USDA has relied mostly on voluntary conservation programs that allow farmers to decide for themselves whether or not to use basic conservation measures to prevent runoff from their fields. That runoff can contain high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that can be hazardous to the health of people and wildlife. 

Simple conservation measures – such as planting strips of grass along rivers and streams that border crop fields – can greatly improve water quality. But when these measures are voluntary, their effectiveness is limited, leading to crises like the one in Toledo.

The solution, as EWG’s Craig Cox said recently, is to regulate farm runoff:

It is past time to require agricultural operations to take basic steps to curb pollution on their fields. Simple, well-understood conservation measures would go a long way toward saving Lake Erie and other waters afflicted with periodic algal blooms.

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