Satellite Imagery Confirms Factory Farm Growth Is Major Cause of Lake Erie Algae Blooms

With the future of the Great Lake in question, environmental groups point to need for greater regulation of runoff from animal feeding operations.

Lake Erie is ill. The Ohio EPA designated the lake as an “impaired” body of water in 2018, which means, in regulatory terms, that the chemical pollution filtering in through local tributaries is getting much worse. Michigan declared its portion of the lake impaired two years prior.

photo of lake erie algae bloom
A large algae bloom covered nearly the entire western basin of Lake Erie in the summer of 2017. Increasingly severe algae blooms on the lake are tied to the increasing number of animal feeding operations in the region. Photo by Photo by J.W.Photography from Annapolis.

This spring, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) jointly published an interactive map to help shed light on the root of the problem. The map, which focuses on the Maumee River watershed, showed a dramatic increase in the number of animal feeding operations — also known as AFOs, or factory farms — and the attendant uptick in phosphorus runoff derived from livestock manure and commercial fertilizer. Dissolved phosphorus in the water table has been linked to the explosive development of harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie, which produce microcystin toxins and create dead zones in the water. More phosphorus, bigger and badder algae blooms.

That's been the general trajectory for algae bloom severity going back at least several years: They're getting worse. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 2019 bloom will be “larger than 2018, as a result of heavy rains in April that produced high river flow and large phosphorus loads.” The Ohio Sea Grant & Stone Lab will reveal its forecast for the severity of the 2019 bloom later this week.

The Maumee River watershed basin, which the Ohio EPA circumscribes as a 5,024-square-mile network of streams and creeks that replenishes Lake Erie, is the largest watershed source of all the Great Lakes. The new data gathered by EWG and ELPC underscores that the Maumee watershed, part of the broader western Lake Erie basin, is “the largest contributor of phosphorus to Lake Erie, delivering an estimated 30 percent of total phosphorus coming to the lake from the US and Canada.” (A December 2016 Journal of Great Lakes Research article first provided that statistic.) Increasing pollution from the Maumee watershed helps explain why phosphorous levels are rising in the lake even while commercial fertilizer application in the greater western Lake Erie basin has been decreasing. It's also why the EWG chose to zero in on this agricultural region in particular.

Using satellite imagery furnished by the National Agriculture Imagery Program from 2005 onward, the EWG team showed the rash of new factory farm operations in northwest Ohio.

The map tracks a 42 percent increase in the number of AFOs spread out across the Maumee River watershed — from 545 in 2005 to 775 in 2018. Those facilities brought the number of animals held on the land from 9 million to 20.4 million.

And the amount of manure produced by factory farms in the watershed? With more animals comes more animal waste: Manure output increased from 3.9 million tons to 5.5 million tons over that same period.

photo of lake erie algae bloom map
A new map created by the Environmental Working Group and the Environmental Law Policy Center shows a significant uptick in the number of animal feeding operations in the Maumee River Watershed, and a doubling of the number of animals held in feeding operations in watershed.

“We knew there were a lot of them out there, and we were guessing it was probably in the hundreds,” says Mike Ferner, founder of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, a regional environmental organization. “But I would have never guessed 775 … The bottom-line impression that that report leaves anybody with is that the animal factories are just out of control. I was surprised by the percentage of growth, but even more surprised by the total number.”

Ferner says that a more nuanced issue contributing to the manure problem is the “one-under” strategy that guides many livestock operations in Ohio. The Ohio Department of Agriculture will issue state permits and regulate the manure disposal of a farm with 700 cows, for instance, but it won't oversee the waste output of a farm with 699 cows or fewer. By staying under that oversight threshold, farms are able to avoid regulations on manure disposal There's no real legal recourse for an interested public that is working to cut down on these livestock operations’ phosphorus runoff.

Algae blooms caused by the phosphorous pollution are an annual phenomenon in Lake Erie that typically peak in the fall. Visually speaking, the blooms turn the lake a thick, sickly green; in 2014, the Maumee River ran chartreuse, and the city of Toledo banned all water usage for three days.

As the water usage ban suggests, these blooms can pose a hazard to public health. As far back as 2010, well into the satellite imagery timeline shared by the EWG report, health officials investigated reports “that at least nine people have become ill and at least three dogs have died after coming in contact with the toxic blue-green algae choking Grand Lake St. Marys,” according to a Columbus Dispatch article. Grand Lake St. Marys State Park is located on the southern hemline of the EWG map.

As the issue has continued to garner headlines, regulators and legislators have begun to take action. Ohio's 2018 Lake Erie impairment designation, sanctioned by the Clean Water Act, was meant to trigger “a process that includes finding sources of pollution and limiting pollution,” according to WOSU Public Media's reporting at the time. One provision of the impairment designation is for the state to mandate a “total maximum daily load” for farm pollution, like phosphorus runoff.

Earlier this year, Governor Mike DeWine introduced a $900-million “H2Ohio” water quality initiative, though it's not yet clear exactly how the program will be funded program or how the state will engage the Clean Water Act regulations. And on June 14, DeWine joined other Great Lakes state leaders in pledging a 40-percent reduction in Lake Erie phosphorus levels by 2025, although that promise is based on 2008 data.

The scale of the problem is vast. In southern Wood County — which sits outside Toledo and just south of the western tip of Lake Erie — the landscape is dotted with dairy operations and small- to medium-sized factory farms. They're visible a few miles out on a clear day — tall vats and long, low-slung sheds. The smell is unavoidable in the quiet, heavy air.

Those who live here are very familiar with the proliferation, which they’ve pointed out to local and state agencies since the early 2000s.

David Housholder is a lifelong farmer and a former Portage Township trustee who's spent years trying to fight off factory farm encroachment. He farmed sugar beets for years. Now, he sows fields with wheat, corn, and beans. Consistent downpours have left his and his neighbors’ lands almost totally washed out, and standing water near the roadside reeks deeply when I visit in June.

Housholder points to the water drainage system in the region as a big part of the problem. “Northwest Ohio, with the way it's designed — with our tile drainage, with our ditches, with our Hoytville soils that tend to crack when they get dry and open up several feet down — you couldn't come up with a much worse place to be situating operations that produce this amount of liquid manure,” Housholder says.

Part of this goes back to the very foundation of western Ohio's agricultural infrastructure. Housholder says that this area boasts more tile drainage than anywhere in the US. And according to a 1916 US Department of Agriculture report, Ohio has always ranked among the leading states in tile drainage development. Tile drainage refers to the porous ceramic clay tiles that were placed under the soil to create a sort of “plumbing” system to collect and divert excess water. Later, slitted plastic replaced the tile. The net result is the same: Subsurface water is pulled away from crops into an underground network of pipes and, inevitably, into open ditches near small creeks. You can guess which way the creeks flow. The broad ecological consequences are the colorful bursts of deep greens in aerial imagery of Lake Erie 15 years on.

According to the EWG report, “Legacy phosphorus in the soil, tile drainage, and tillage practices are leading current hypotheses to explain these increasing dissolved phosphorus loads [in Lake Erie].”

And as Housholder explains it, this drainage tile is “constantly seeping.” It’s not just this past spring’s heightened phosphorus load that will feed the development of algae blooms later this year — it’s the past several years’ worth of phosphorus and other chemicals slowly dripping into the water table.

Short of an almost inconceivable reconstruction of Ohio’s tile drainage infrastructure, Housholder and fellow advocates draw the conversation back to state oversight of livestock farming operations — regardless of size—or the current lack thereof.

“While there are some regulations concerning CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] manure, there seems to be little follow-up on how much phosphorus and nitrogen is actually applied on each field,” says John Bresler, a fourth-generation grain farmer in northwest Ohio. “There also is little to no checking on the ditches around the CAFO to determine if and how much runoff is happening. Where the manure is applied is not checked either, nor the runoff from those fields. Many of those fields are used over and over so that some have huge amounts of phosphorus not used by the crop in the year it is applied.

“Most of the rules are just built on trust, but to us that just doesn't cut it.”

In February 2019, in the wake of the Lake Erie impairment designation, Toledo residents passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a ballot measure supported by Toledoans for Safe Water. The measure establishes legal standing for the lake, allowing citizens to sue those threatening Lake Erie’s health on its behalf. CAFO operators are pushing back. One Woods County farm filed a lawsuit against the City of Toledo seeking to overturn the ballot measure. In Columbus, Republican lawmakers added a provision to the state budget that would essentially nullify the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (and any similar ballot measures to come).

Governor DeWine had planned to sign the state budget by June 30. As broader budget debates broke down between Republicans and Democrats, however, the Ohio House Speaker pushed a 17-day spending bill through the floor.

Meanwhile, the public debate over what the proliferation of lake pollution means for the future continues. “To me, the biggest value of the EWG study is that it shows that this industry is out of control,” Ferner says. “And that’s not just a flip phrase. It means: Nobody’s controlling it.”

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