By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- Agriculture has a big target on its back after a massive algal bloom in Lake Erie last summer led the state of Ohio to order more than 400,000 residents in Toledo not to drink city tap water.
Threats to drinking water such as the one in Toledo cannot effectively be prevented without regulating nonpoint pollution sources such as farms, the president of the American Water Works Association told a House Environment and the Economy subcommittee Wednesday.
John J. Donahue's testimony before the House comes at a time when the Ohio General Assembly is considering legislation that would establish rules outlining when farmers could use fertilizers and manure. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Tuesday that it was unclear whether the legislation had a chance for passage before the current legislative session ends next month. The algal bloom, largely caused by phosphorus and nitrogen runoff and other factors, led to the formation of cyanotoxins that can be deadly to humans.
The legislation in Ohio would ban farmers in the West Basin from applying manure and fertilizer on soils covered with snow, and frozen or saturated soils. Under the bill, violators could face penalties up to $10,000.
"It is true that states have authority to control nonpoint sources, but most state programs are limited and are too weak to adequately protect U.S. water supplies," Donahue said in his written testimony. "If these programs were stronger, the unfortunate events in Toledo might not have occurred ... Although each watershed is unique and has its own mix of nutrient sources, across the nation the most prominent uncontrolled sources of nitrogen and phosphorus are nonpoint sources, that is, runoff.
"It would not be fair to put the entire burden of addressing this problem on municipal wastewater and drinking water utilities. It would not be fair to them or their customers to require that municipal utilities spend more of their financial resources attempting to buy a pound of cure to this problem, when many ounces of prevention are available at a lower cost."
While downstream wastewater treatment systems are available to remove cyanobacteria from drinking water, Donahue said they are expensive to buy and maintain.
At this point, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate cyanobacteria in drinking water.
Craig W. Butler, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said if the federal EPA decides to regulate cyanotoxins in drinking water, the agency seeks input from states first.
"We prefer to be engaged up front," he said. "We have learned a lot after working with Toledo."
The state has enacted a number of programs to improve and maintain water quality in Lake Erie. Through the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative, for example, the Ohio legislature appropriated more than $3.5 million for the installation of best management practices to reduce nutrients runoff in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Through the program state and local partners work with more than 350 farmers to implement BMPs on more than 40,000 acres.
Peter C. Grevatt, director of EPA's office of groundwater and drinking water, said science is not available on what would be considered safe levels of cyanobacteria in drinking water. He said EPA is finalizing health advisories for two cyanotoxins associated with the algal bloom in Lake Erie and lakes across the country.
In addition, Grevatt said EPA has been conducting studies to identify and evaluate the causes, detection, treatment and health and ecological effects from algal blooms in the U.S. In addition, EPA maintains a contaminant candidate list and an unregulated contaminant monitoring rule.
Since the Great Lakes restoration initiative was established in 2010, he said the EPA has funded nutrient runoff reduction in partnership with USDA and the Department of the Interior, investing tens of millions of dollars in watersheds. In response to the Toledo incident, Grevatt said the EPA redirected $12 million to federal and state agencies to target the bacteria in western Lake Erie.
"The EPA is taking aggressive action to develop and publish health advisories, water quality criteria, and analytical methods while providing ongoing technical assistance to states and communities," he said.
Donahue said federal and state conservation efforts do help reduce nutrient runoff across the country. "However, the conservation programs of the farm bill are voluntary in nature," he said, "and the program requirements are not based upon the quality of receiving waters or the need to protect downstream sources of drinking water."
The Clean Water Act, however, requires point sources to "obtain water quality and technology-based permits with fixed terms," Donahue said. "Permit conditions are reviewed on a regular basis and are routinely ratcheted towards greater stringency based on the quality of the receiving stream. These important features are absent from the farm bill's voluntary programs."
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com
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