It's been a while, let's catch up. First, the 2014 Toledo water crisis.
August 2nd was the 7th anniversary of the Toledo water crisis when a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie caused the disruption of drinking water for 500,000 people in Toledo and Michigan.
It was a stunning event, the type that isn't supposed to happen in a developed country, especially the U.S. But it did and for three days the spotlight was on Toledo as its citizens scrambled far and wide for bottled water.
Once the all clear to drink Lake Erie water was given the soul-searching began. How did this happen and how do we prevent it from happening again. But it didn't take a big investigation. Algae blooms are a product of nutrient runoff from farms that eventually flows to Lake Erie. By 2014, there was little debate about the veracity of the source.
The solution, get farmers to reduce the runoff without regulating them. So, Ohio and the federal government funded programs that would provide financial incentives if farmers implemented best practices that reduced runoff. In other words, pay farmers to not pollute.
According to U.S. EPA information, since 2010 $100 million was paid from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative coffers to ag to implement those best practices. Did it work? Not really. A relatively small number of farmers took advantage of the incentive program and not at a large enough scale to turn the tide toward protecting Lake Erie.
In 2019 Ohio, with great fanfare, launched its own financial incentive program that pays farmers to not pollute. Results? Too soon to tell but most experts are skeptical.
More telling is what we aren't doing and that's developing regulations to prevent farmers from sending their algae-fueling fertilizer to Lake Erie. At a 2019 conference of Great Lakes governors I asked Ohio's Mike DeWine if, given the risk to Lake Erie, it was time to slap some regs on farmers. He gave me a circuitous answer listing the things that Ohio is doing to combat algae blooms but closed by saying on regulations, "we're not there yet."
There's a lawsuit brought by activists against the U.S. EPA that's been winding its way through the federal court process that if successful, would require the agency to pick up the pace on protecting Lake Erie. A decision is expected in September.
Handicap what a court will do at your own peril but I don't see a sea change coming from the courts or any federal or state agency on tightening the screws on ag's farming practices.
And it's not political. If Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing, it's that farmers, the original stewards of the land as they like to refer to themselves, don't need more regulation. Alienating farmers is the political third rail.
The 7th anniversary of the Toledo water crisis came and went with little fanfare that I could detect. How quickly we forget, I guess. Or it can't happen here syndrome. But don't be surprised if there's another one someday and it won't provide any advance notice.
And like Toledo in 2014 and Flint in 2016, the spotlight will be on the Great Lakes region's stewardship of its vast water supply. But the spotlight will eventually go out, until the next crisis.
Chicago-based environmental journalist