For the past 66 years of his life, Ohio farmer Ronald Wyss visited Grand Lake St. Mary’s — about two hours northwest of Columbus — with his family for their yearly reunion. Wyss grew up swimming and boating in the lake every summer, but because of harmful algal blooms, he and his family no longer enjoy the lake the same way they used to.
“In 2009 the count on the microcystin was so high that they closed the lake and gave the warning that you could not swim,” Wyss said. “Now we go [to the lake] and they set up a pool for the kids to swim in. It’s not nearly as fun anymore.”
Microcystin is a toxin created by blue-green algae and is a by-product of harmful algal blooms. Exposure to it can lead to breathing problems, skin damage and liver damage, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Those harmful algal blooms — overgrown algae colonies fueled by excess nutrients from manure and fertilizer runoff from nearby farms — were the topic of discussion at an event put on Thursday by students in the Moritz College of Law’s Rule of Law class.
Jay Payne, a law student in the Rule of Law class, said the goal of the event was to bring differing ideologies into one room and talk about the controversy over how to manage harmful algal blooms, known as HABs.
The event highlighted the perspectives of both farmers and environmentalists, who are often perceived to be on opposite sides.
“It’s not us versus them. We have to thank farmers for what they do,” said panel member Donald Wiggins, Lake Erie engagement coordinator for the Ohio Environmental Council. “But we can’t sacrifice the growing of food for water quality.”
Water quality has been a hot topic in Ohio in recent years, especially in Lake Erie where Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory is located. In 2014, increased levels of microcystin forced part of the city of Toledo to briefly shut off its water. Nearly half a million people were without water for two days, according to the Toledo Blade.
Wyss, who is also a member of the Lake Erie Foundation’s board, told the audience in Drinko Hall that his advocacy for the health of Ohio’s water came from his experiences at Grand Lake St. Mary’s and as a farmer in the midwest.
“I realized that I was a part of the problem,” Wyss said.
Wyss said he saw firsthand how farms could contribute to the issue of nonpoint source pollution. Extra manure and fertilizer applied to farmland is washed into waterways when rain falls, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The excess nutrients are then used by blue-green algae for food. This process creates 80 percent of nonpoint source pollution, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service
But sometimes the algae growth gets out of hand, creating HABs that are harmful to both wildlife and human health.
One way to slow the progression of nonpoint source pollution is to provide farmers with good information, said panel member Yvonne Lesicko, vice president of public policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation is a farmer advocacy group that supports farmers and promotes conservation.
To allow them to see the impact of their work, Lesicko and her organization took 150 farmers to Stone Laboratory, Ohio State’s research lab located on Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie.
“They could go up on a boat, see what the researchers were doing and see what the impact was of what [the farmers] were doing,” Lesicko said.
Four other management strategies for HABs developed by Lake Erie scientists — four of which do research for Ohio State — include conducting more farm soil tests, inserting fertilizer below the surface to reduce above-surface runoff, controlling erosion with cover crops and minimizing the amount of water that leaves the farm.
But, Wiggins said many programs have been cut because of a “skinny budget” in the federal government. President Donald Trump’s proposed EPA budget would cut all funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which was initially $300 million.
“We have to ensure that resources continue to flow from top to bottom and ensure that rules that are developed are fair across the board,” Wiggins said.
A Q&A session concluded the event. Law student Clair Bullock asked how to get individuals with no connection to Lake Erie to care about water quality issues.
Wiggins answered by addressing the HABs in Toledo in 2013 and in 2009 in Grand Lake St. Mary’s.
“Crisis creates disruption, disruption creates awareness,” Wiggins said. “You go three days without water and you go, ‘Holy s—, what’s going on?’”
“We have to be meeting people where they are, from source to tap.”