Grants and loans offered to protect Lake Erie and drinking water

In the wake of the Toledo water crisis, state officials rolled out a plan Thursday to help cities test and treat drinking water and prevent sewage overflows into the Lake Erie watershed.

The plan also offers grants to farmers who want to do their part in cutting fertilizer run off flowing to the lake.

“Lake Erie is one of Ohio’s most precious resources and each day millions turn to it for drinking as well as their livelihoods. Ohio has been increasingly aggressive in protecting it and we’re building on those efforts with new resources for those on the front lines of this battle. There’s more work to be one and we’re going to keep pushing forward,” said Gov. John Kasich in a prepared statement.

Two weeks ago when a blue-green algal bloom drifted into Toledo’s water intake, chemists at the city’s treatment plant detected unsafe levels of toxic microcystin in finished drinking water. That triggered a do-not-drink order for 500,000 people in Ohio and Michigan, raised alarm about pollution in Lake Erie and shook the confidence in the public drinking water system. Water was delivered to Toledo from as far away as Piqua to help with the crisis.

Here is a breakdown of the money announced Thursday:

* $100 million in loans for local wastewater systems for equipment and facilities that will reduce the levels of phosphorus and other pollutants;

* $50 million in loans for local water treatment plants for upgrades and back-up water source systems;

* $1 million grant money for local public water systems to buy lab equipment, supplies and training needed to test for toxins produced by algal blooms;

* $1.25 million grant money for farmers to plant cover crops this winter on up to 25,000 acres and install up to 300 drainage devices to cut back on nutrient run off into the Lake Erie watershed; and

* $2 million grant money for Ohio institutions to conduct research into algal blooms.

“These are going to take some time. Again, this is a long problem that has been building up over the years and we are going make sure that we do everything we can that we can to start reducing nutrients that are getting into our rivers and streams,” said Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer.

The grant money will flow to only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of farmers working the 4.5 million acres of agriculture land that drains into the Maumee River and then into Lake Erie’s western basin. Scientists say agriculture fertilizer and manure runoff is the leading contributor to phosphorus, which leads to harmful algal blooms. The blooms have plagued the lake every summer since 1998.

A new state law will require farmers in the next three years to be certified in fertilizer application. But the law doesn’t cover manure spreading practices and there is no requirement that farmers actually follow the best practices.

State Sen. Edna Brown, D-Toledo, introduced a bill Thursday that would add manure to the fertilizers covered in the certification program.

Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Dave Daniels sidestepped a question about whether Ohio should expand the law. “We certainly look at all those options. We don’t have the authority to do anything like that now,” he said.

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