Ohio's lawmakers are taking their first step toward slowing the spread of algae in Lake Erie since a toxin contaminated the drinking water for more than 400,000 people.
Legislation approved in the state House would ban farmers in much of northwestern Ohio from spreading manure on top of frozen or saturated fields. Another provision would set new rules on dumping dredged sediment in the lake.
Both are thought to contribute to the algae blooms that produce dangerous toxins. But how much those proposed changes — they still need approval in the Ohio Senate — would help isn't certain.
Research is limited on how much of the phosphorus that feeds the algae blooms comes from dredging and from livestock farmers spreading manure onto frozen and snow-covered fields in the winter.
Still, both are thought to be factors and pressure has been rising on state and federal officials to fix the troubled lake in the months since toxins from the algae left residents around Toledo and in southeastern Michigan without water for two days in August.
"We need to start doing something," said Rep. Mike Sheehy, a Democrat from the Toledo suburb of Oregon who called for a ban on the spread of manure on frozen ground well before Toledo's water crisis.
"It's not something that all of a sudden somebody just thought up," he said. "There's some pretty good science that suggest those are major contributors."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service says less than 20 percent of agriculture-related phosphorus in western Lake Erie comes from livestock manure; the rest is from commercial fertilizer. This past spring, Ohio put in place a law requiring most farmers to undergo training and be certified by the state before they use commercial fertilizers on their fields, though that requirement is not yet in effect.
It's not clear how many livestock farms spread manure onto frozen fields, which allows the phosphorus to wash away and end up in the lake.
Glen Arnold, a manure management specialist with Ohio State University Extension, said most farmers rarely put manure on frozen ground. That's why he thinks banning the practice when the ground is frozen or saturated will not significantly improve water quality.
But he also knows lawmakers can't wait to take action.
"We can't say we're doing this research and we'll have an idea in five years," Arnold said. "That's not soon enough."
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation had been against banning farmers from putting manure on frozen fields even though it said the practice was not a good idea. The farm industry's powerful lobbying group had argued such a move would be costly for farmers who lacked storage for manure.
But the organization has changed course and now supports the proposal. The legislation also would prohibit farmers in most northwestern Ohio counties from spreading manure if heavy rain is in the immediate forecast. Farmers who inject the manure into the soil would be exempt.
Yvonne Lesicko, the farm bureau's policy director, said they plan on finding out how many farmers will be affected by the proposal and determine if financial help is available for those that will need to add storage space.
"We want to be good stewards of the land," she said.