I-Team investigation: Lake Erie algae blooms and the ghost of the river burning

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CLEVELAND - It's taken 45 years, but the jokes about the river burning in Cleveland have faded.

Now they can't be replaced by jokes about Lake Erie being the only great lake where you can't drink the water.

"We don't want to be the butt of late night comedians again," says Rep. Dave Hall, the Republican chairman of the Ohio House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Hall, whose district stretches from Millersburg north to Brunswick, says the first concern is public safety, and the second is an image problem that can impede economic development in a region that appears poised on the brink of a comeback.

Hall's committee will hold hearings to look at what to do to prevent a repeat of what happened last summer in Toledo.

For an entire weekend, close to half a million people living in and near Toledo couldn't drink their water for fear that an algae bloom on Lake Erie had rendered it toxic.

The concern was over a bloom that produced "microcystin" - a toxin that in too high of amounts can lead to liver and stomach problems.

Julius Ciaccia, Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, warns that without change, the region is doing worse than playing with fire - it's playing with its source of drinking water.

"(The blooms) will come again, just like the river burned," he says.

There are three main sources of the pollution that leads to the blooms: storm water overflows, faulty septic systems, and farm fertilizer runoff.

Western Ohio has more agriculture than the Cleveland area, and the lake is shallower out west, which makes that region more susceptible to the blooms.

But they can occur off Cleveland as well.

Regarding storm water, Ciaccia says it can be a problem when heavy rains overwhelm the systems, but that storm water is heavily regulated.

"We're dealing with a fifth of the problem," he says.

The U.S. EPA says storm water accounts for about 20 percent of the problem pollution on Lake Erie.

Ciaccia says the main problem is fertilizer and manure runoff from farms.

In a competitive industry such as agriculture, Ciaccia says, it's going to require some regulation to make effective changes, rather than relying on voluntary compliance.

"That didn't get us there when the river burned," he says, "and it's not going to get us there now."
(The Cuyahoga River burning did help lead to Congress passing the Clean Water Act in 1972.)

"Can't blame it all on the farmer," says Kenny Ternes, who works the land on his family's farm in Lorain County.
Ternes says any possible solutions must take into account the critical role that fertilizers play in agriculture.

"If you don't put fertilizer down, you're going to get 30 bushels per acre of corn," he says, "and with fertilizer, you're going to get 150 bushels."

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation has sunk a lot of time and money into studying the problem.

"We're absolutely dedicated to solving this problem," says the Bureau's Adam Sharp.
He points out that there is already fertilizer certification in place for medium and larger size farms, and that more farmers are turning to new methods such as "cover crops" - which keep more fertilizer on the fields and out of Lake Erie.

Rep. Hall wants to take part of a windfall from a new oil and gas severance tax, and use up to $50 million dollars a year of that money for water programs designed to help Lake Erie, and water systems throughout the state.

"What we're doing now is basically a band-aid over the system," he says.

Rep. Hall will have to convince Gov. John Kasich that his idea is a good one.

A spokesman says the Governor favors an increase in the oil and gas severance tax, but wants to use the money to cut the income tax for Ohioans.

But Hall sees a critical need, saying if the lake's water becomes undrinkable again, the danger is that reputation could stick - just like the image of the Cuyahoga River on fire stuck for close to half a century.

"You don't want to have the burning river image," he says.

The ghost of that image still haunts the region every now and then - even today.

And nobody wants to see it return.