In early August of 2014, following a historic winter polar vortex, Lake Erie faced a record breaking algae bloom of such epic proportions that it caused 500,000 people in the Toledo, Ohio area to go without drinking water. Toledo gained national attention as truckloads of bottled water were shipped into the city for residents. Three years later, little has been done to prevent such an emergency from happening again.
What caused the Algae Bloom?
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) act passed in 2005 and expanded in 2007 are pieces of legislation that subsidized and mandated the use of bio-fuels in place of petroleum products, chief among these renewable bio-fuels are ethanol and bio-diesel. Ethanol is manufactured from corn and bio-diesel is manufactured from soybeans.
Corn and soybean crops are the most phosphorous and nitrogen intensive of all row crops. From 1970 to 2005 there was on average 76.8 million acres annually planted with corn. After the passage of the RFS, from 2006 to 2016, that number has radically increased to just a little less than 90 million acres (a 17% increase in just 10 years). Soybeans saw a similar increase in production. Just how big is the 13 million acre increase in corn? To put it in perspective it is about the size of the state of West Virginia. All this corn production and soybean production has required more fertilizer and this has caused greater fertilizer runoff and that has caused greater algae blooms. While the amount of phosphorus run off helps determine the size of harmful algae blooms, the amount of nitrogen run-off determines the toxicity of the blooms.
Where did the land come from to grow this corn?
While it was common practice to rotate different crops each year so nature could help restore the soil, many farmers have opted for mono-cropping. Mono-cropping is growing the same crop over and over and replenishing the soil of vital nutrients with man-made fertilizers. This has meant that corn has displaced many other crops, crops that were intended as food. The displacement of food crops has caused a precipitous rise in the cost of food and America now imports more of its food from South America and overseas than at anytime in its history, greatly impacting our national security. This spike in food prices has profoundly affected America’s economy as less people have expendable money in their pockets and the cost to feed those that cannot feed themselves has increased. This has all had the effect of straining local and state budgets which has in turn raised taxes.
Though not all food crops have been displaced. A tremendous amount of land that was previously unused because of poor soil conditions has now been put into production with the advent of man-made fertilizers. Much of this land previously acted as a filter and prevented fertilizers from running off croplands and into streams that lead to our watersheds and into our most important bodies of water. The use of these natural filters as cropland has only compounded Ohio’s fertilizer run-off problems.
Phosphorus and Nitrogen: a Blessing and a Curse
Without phosphorus and nitrogen, farmers could not feed the world. With too much phosphorus and nitrogen and the right weather conditions however, farmers have the very real potential of poisoning much of our available water supplies. A very cold winter, followed by a wet spring, and a warm summer are the weather conditions, along with present fertilizer usage, that combined to deprive the city of Toledo of fresh water.
The “Dead Zone” created annually from fertilizer runoff in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006
is much larger than the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
The State of Ohio is doing something about our fertilizer problem, right?
The answer to the question is: not really, at least not in any substantive way.
Legislation has been passed into law that prevents farmers from placing fertilizer on fields that are still frozen that promotes fertilizer runoff. Ask Ohio farmers though, and they will tell you they were already following that practice, it is in the farmer’s best interests if the fertilizer they put on their fields is actually used by their crops rather than running into Ohio’s streams and lakes. Many farmers blame the excessive fertilizer runoff in the spring of 2014 due to the frozen ground beneath the topsoil caused by the polar vortex and abnormally heavy spring rains.
What are Ohio farmers doing to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff?
The Ohio farm community is slow to adopt change, normally taking decades to change their farm practices. Skepticism runs rampant in the farm community. Using alternatives to fertilizers and other farming practices are not immediately embraced as there have been many snake oil salesmen and products that have not worked as advertised or only worked for a short time.
Is there a solution to the fertilizer runoff problem?
For Ohio? Not really. The agricultural community in Ohio wields tremendous political power and has resisted all efforts for substantive legislation. Their political power also means introducing legislation that impacts farmers and their farming practices is political suicide for politicians. It is also not likely that the Trump administration will end the RFS mandate for fear of losing the support of the farming community.
Are renewable fuels environmentally friendly?
No, they are not. Not only are the production of renewable fuels poisoning our waters and raising our cost of food but, the fuels themselves only exacerbate the problem of the production of carbon dioxide, which is a concern for environmentalists. How? Even if you disregard the carbon dioxide that is produced during agricultural production from fossil fuel usage during farming, ethanol reduces the engine life of any engine it runs in. Ethanol absorbs atmospheric water vapor and that water grows a bacteria that excretes acetic acid that causes corrosion in engines and decreases engine life. Engines are primarily made of either steel or aluminum and both need a tremendous amount of energy from baseload, non renewable sources, to be be produced. The increased production of steel needed has tremendous carbon dioxide consequences.
Will Ohio have a major algae bloom in 2017?
The possibility of a a severe bloom this year is not likely, but it has not been ruled out. If the Maumee river watershed happens to be inundated with abnormal rainfall over the next 6 weeks, then the Ohio’s algae bloom could be severe.
What are Ohio’s options to prevent another massive algae bloom?
The last time that Ohio legislators did not act to correct an environmental catastrophe in Lake Erie, Congress acted and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The fire on the Cuyahoga River in 1969 sparked a national outrage and gave life to a very dormant environmental movement. A movement that has had a profound impact in stifling the competitiveness of the United States with egregious regulations and a bloated bureaucracy.
The problem for Ohioans is, that while there are alternatives to phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers, Ohio farmers will not voluntarily use these alternatives until they have been tested for a decade or more. Any concern for Lake Erie from the farming community can be seen as disingenuous as the community has been reluctant to more rapidly innovate, embrace, and adopt changes when it concerns fertilizer usage.
Ohio legislators can avoid a potential environmental catastrophe by placing a tax on phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers when runoff reduction goals are not met. Giving farmers goals to meet and the repercussions of not meeting those goals, give farmers a map and an incentive to reduce their fertilizer usage voluntarily. A tax on fertilizer will give farmers an incentive to use alternatives to phosphorus and nitrogen, many of which have been proven to produce higher yields at a lower cost.
Will Ohio’s legislature act to address fertilizer runoff?
Not likely. The political will to take on the farm community does not seem to exist in the Ohio House and Senate. It will take a very brave legislator to take on this issue and even more brave legislators to pass legislation. More than likely, the next algae bloom that deprives a major city of water, the federal EPA will step in and impose stringent regulations on Ohio farmers.