More than a hundred farms in Southeast Michigan may be contributing to Lake Erie pollution, according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Fertilizer in farm runoff is a common pollutant and contributed to a toxic algae bloom that forced Toledo, Ohio, officials to shut off about 500,000 residents’ water for three days in 2014.
But while environmentalists argue for more oversight at the largely unregulated small and midsize farms that produce it, the report may also highlight just how much is unknown about farm pollution, in general.
There is little oversight and scant regulation nationwide on small and midsize farm fertilizer use — a major contributor to toxic algal blooms in both fresh and saltwater across the globe.
“Unless you’re studying the water and runoff patterns, it’s hard to know how much any field is contributing to the rivers,” said Christopher Winslow, director of the Ohio Sea Grant Program at the Ohio State University. “Right now, we just don’t know enough.”
Farmers use manure and other fertilizers to accelerate crop growth. As it mixes with rain, it can drain into rivers, lakes and streams, inadvertently boosting downstream aquatic plant life. That includes Lake Erie algae rendered toxic by the presence of cyanobacteria, as in the 2014 case in Toledo. Such fertilizers have also been shown to increase greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to dead zones in oceans.
The EWG report places the blame for such pollution in large part on the lack of required permits for small and midsize animal farms, as well as a voluntary approach on their part to practices that may reduce fertilizer runoff.
But industry groups, along with other environmental experts, say it’s impossible to know exactly which farms might be a problem because of a lack of data, even from large, industrial animal operations that do require permits.
That can make crafting regulations to solve the problem exceedingly difficult. There’s also fierce opposition to further regulation from industry groups like the Farm Bureau.
To find areas that might be applying too much fertilizer, Winslow said the best available tactic for researchers is to look at watersheds with high concentrations of phosphorus — a compound found in manure and synthetic fertilizer that contributes to toxic algae blooms in freshwater.
But that still doesn’t identify which farms are doing the leaking, or how much of their fertilizer is seeping into the water.
“The biggest issue we’re facing right now across the watershed is that a farmfield isn’t a farmfield isn’t a farmfield,” Winslow said. “Being able to determine the likelihood of a field contributing nutrients to the system is not easy. Some soils hold on pretty well… some leak it pretty well.”
That can make “educated guesses” the best available information for policymakers, according to Sarah Porter, EWG’s senior analyst and project manager.
“The fact is, without state-issued permits, nobody knows anything about these facilities,” said Porter, who led the recent EWG report highlighting “unregulated factory farms” she says may contribute to Lake Erie fertilizer pollution.
“We are using the best available data we have to fill a much needed data gap to start to understand the extent of animal operations in the Maumee — and their impacts,” she said. “We wouldn’t have to do any of this if states already had this information, which we think they should.”
EWG, an environmental and consumer protection organization, analyzed aerial photos, satellite imagery and state permit data to find 775 hog, cattle, dairy and poultry farms between Ohio and Michigan that may feed fertilizer into Lake Erie’s largest tributary, the Maumee River. The number of farms in the area has increased by 42 percent since 2005, according to the report.
That growth includes 26 new livestock operations in Michigan that have cropped up near the Ohio border between 2005 and 2018, the report said. Twenty-three of those were cattle farms.
The Michigan and Ohio farm bureaus, which lobby for the agriculture industry, were incensed by the report and disputed its basic accuracy.
“The report absolutely falsely claims that manure is going out on the landscape in an unregulated way,” said Laura Campbell, manager of agriculture ecology at the Michigan Farm Bureau.
Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, also said it contained a number of false claims about Ohio, including that its livestock operations aren’t regulated and that they are “factory farms,” among other claims.
“So as you can tell, we don’t think much of the report,” Cornely said. “It’s very frustrating for farmers because I think the case can be made that since the Toledo water crisis, there’s been no sector of the economy that has put more into trying to solve this problem.
“There is a huge difference between not being permitted and not being regulated,” he continued. “Not having a permit does not mean that there’s not regulatory oversight. No farm in Ohio is allowed to pollute. Period. There are several laws in place to help attain that goal.”
Scientists have long known that fertilizers speed up toxic algae growth. But farms have been left largely to their own devices when it comes to reducing or controlling runoff, to the dismay of environmentalists who believe that runoff is endangering the nation’s waterways.
Only manure practices at large livestock operations — as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — are regulated in Michigan. The rest rely on a voluntary approach.
Tom Zimnicki, a lobbyist for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the former Gov. Rick Snyder administration “was instrumental in doubling down this approach to voluntary regulation.” Under that system, farmers were encouraged, but not required, to adopt practices to reduce fertilizer runoff. That voluntary approach is also prevalent nationally, he said.
Michigan developed a Lake Erie action plan last year meant to slash the amount of phosphorus entering the Lake Erie basin. The goal is to reduce the nutrient’s lake levels 40 percent by 2025. The EPA also has an ongoing 119-page Lake Erie action plan, calling for voluntary phosphorus reductions at farms near major Lake Erie tributaries: the Maumee, Portage, Sandusky and Huron rivers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has a voluntary Tri-State Western Lake Erie Basin Phosphorus Reduction Initiative, spurred by the 2014 Farm Bill.
Zimnicki questioned the EWG report’s methodology in reaching conclusions about the number of livestock and the amount of phosphorous at Michigan farms that don’t require permits. He agreed, however, that Michigan and the federal government should enforce stricter regulations to curb agricultural runoff.
“Across the country, we see time and time again these strictly voluntary programs just do not deliver the results that for truly lasting change in a waterway,” Zimnicki said.