The U.S. EPA tap dances on tightening regs on farmers, clean water remains at risk
In November 2021, I talked with newly minted EPA Great Lakes region administrator Debra Shore as she began to avail herself to media inquiries for the first time.
Shore, a Chicagoan, was previously an elected commissioner with Greater Chicago’s water reclamation district, think sewage management. She was best known for trying to drive reforms that would make the sleepy agency more accessible to the public. Success? Some, but entrenched bureaucracies are slow to change.
Now on a bigger stage, Shore is responsible for the Great Lakes and its issues and among the biggest and most intractable is Lake Erie, and its notorious algae blooms. The type that caused Toledo to go without drinking water for three days in August 2014.
The algae blooms are fueled by nutrient runoff from farms - a sanitized way of saying agricultural (ag) pollution. Years, decades of study have documented ag as the primary pollution source and the remedy has been to ask farmers to voluntarily use better practices to reduce the runoff. And they’ve been provided financial incentives to do so to the tune of $100M+ from the federal Great Lakes restoration program.
Progress? Some but nowhere near the scale that’s needed. It’s generally accepted that to come near a solution to Lake Erie’s algae bloom problem, increased regulations on farmers will be necessary. But that’s the political third rail. Legislators from both political parties are loath to take on ag and its powerful lobby, the farm bureaus.
So I asked Shore for her position on resolving Lake Erie’s algae bloom problems. She was new with perhaps a new perspective and with the gravitas of her office, could be an agent for change I thought.
Specifically I asked, “Is it time to step up regulatory action to protect Lake Erie?”
Shore tapped danced a bit then got to the essence of her response. “I would like to see us doing more research,” she said. Really, I thought but tempered the urge to utter a knee jerk response like, are you serious.
I know of no credible observer of Lake Erie who thinks more research, beyond staying current on the science, is necessary. And the International Joint Commission, the U.S. and Canada agency that advises the two countries on transboundary water issues said as much.
In significant reports released in 2014 and 2017 to the countries, the IJC called for “more regulatory mechanisms” and “mandatory standards and controls” to stem the ag pollution to Lake Erie.
Fast forward two years from the Debra Shore interview and now comes this headline courtesy of Associated Press.
“The EPA is rejecting calls for tougher regulation of big livestock farms. It’s promising more study.”
Another, more study, really moment..
The essence of the AP report is that the Biden administration denied calls from environmental and community groups to bolster regulation of large livestock farms that release manure into waterways.
They’re known as CAFO’s, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations where hundreds and thousands of animals are confined. It’s a national issue.
EPA, the AP reported, said an advisory group will look at the issue for 12-18 months and make recommendations to the agency. EPA will then start its own review and no timeline for completion was provided.
But big federal agencies are not known for speed.
It’s classic bureaucratic non-action. Profess to need more information, seek out experts to advise you what you should or already do know and kick the decision down the road.
I’ll close with the elephant in the room, politics.
We’re nearing an election year and neither Democrats or Republicans are going to pick a fight with farmers or their powerful lobby, the farm bureaus.
It won’t happen. Especially in the key election Great Lakes states Michigan and Ohio.
In addition to the presidential race, in Michigan there will be an open senate seat as Sen. Debbie Stabenow is retiring. In Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is running to retain his seat. Both are Democrats and the party holds a razor thin senate majority, so not a time to tackle hard issues like tightening the regulations on farmers.
The result is Lake Erie and other great waterways which politicians of all stripes profess to treasure, will continue to be at risk.
As will drinking water for millions.
Links below to my interview with administrator Shore and the AP story with more on the Biden administration’s decision.
Debra Shore interview
Chicago-based environmental journalist