News Column

Ohio provides $150M in loans to fight algae

August 15, 2014

By Tom Henry, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

Aug. 15--Gov. John Kasich's administration on Thursday chose a Perrysburg Township farm as a backdrop to announce $150 million in state loan money to help cities deal with expenses related to mitigating Lake Erie's toxic algae problem.

The state said the no-interest loans should help offset the costs of fixing municipal sewage systems and modernizing water-treatment plants.

The event was the latest in response to the algae-induced Aug. 2-4 water crisis that made metro Toledo's tap water undrinkable and untouchable for that water system's 500,000 customers.

Much of the $100 million the state has available for sewerage work comes from the federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund set each year by Congress, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler said.

Mr. Butler added, however, that the offer of 20-year state loans at zero percent interest should help communities afford to address sewage spills faster. In recent years, the money has been loaned at a rate of 3 percent.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund is the largest fund in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget and has been subject to numerous cuts during the past decade as politicians on Capitol Hill have struggled to narrow the federal budget deficit.

Mr. Butler said it is unclear how much direct benefit Toledo will receive from the state's no-interest loan offers, although he said it could possibly shave some of the time off for such work.

The administration also identified another $50 million for water-treatment repairs and improvements that, likewise, will be offered in the form of no-interest loans.

City upgrades planned

Toledo is entering into the third and final phase of its $521 million sewerage expansion and improvement project, called the Toledo Waterways Initiative, and has many of its contracts in place for that work, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020.

The Collins administration wants city councilmen to approve higher sewage rates by Aug. 26 to keep those contracts in place and the project on schedule.

The city also has embarked on a $300 million upgrade of its embattled Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, although it is still in the design and engineering phase of the biggest aspect of that -- a $264 million unit that, when operational in 2019, will be capable of treating 40 million gallons of water a day.

The city typically treats 60 million to 100 million gallons a day with three units. The facility, which now has three similar units, is designed to treat up to 120 million gallons a day.

Agricultural runoff has been blamed for as much as 60 percent of the phosphorus that enters western Lake Erie via ditches and streams that flow into the lake and its tributaries.

But sewage overflows during heavy thunderstorms are also a major contributor.

Data that recently went online via the program's Web site, www.toledowaterwaysinitiative.com, shows the metro area had 21 sewage spills lasting anywhere from just under an hour to nearly 10 hours as a result of Monday's torrential downpour.

Mr. Butler and two agency directors who joined him at the event -- Jim Zehringer, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resurces, and David Daniels, who heads the Ohio Department of Agriculture -- said money has been redirected from other state programs, but did not specify which ones.

Mr. Butler also said $1 million is being made available for kits and training for other shoreline communities to test for toxic microcystis.

Some 23 facilities draw water from Lake Erie to convert into tap water for 2.6 million Ohioans. Many now contract from cities such as Toledo and Oregon for testing. Mr. Butler said that screening kits can cost $10,000 and that the Ohio EPA will make its state laboratory near Columbus available for more frequent testing.

Tracking fertilizer sales

Governor Kasich's office also said its commitment to algae research includes $2 million "to conduct further research into the life cycle of algal blooms to help Ohio better combat them."

The state agency directors said they chose the Wood County farm owned and operated by Kris Swartz because of his family's reputation for responsible farming practices. Mr. Swartz, vice president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said he grows mostly corn, beans, and wheat.

Mr. Daniels and Mr. Zehringer touted a state law approved this year to help teach large crop farmers how to better apply nutrients to their land and help state officials track their fertilizer purchases.

"Since the day I took office, the first thing I sat down and talked with Governor Kasich about was water quality," Mr. Daniels said, reiterating his support for the law, created from legislation known as Senate Bill 150. "We all take it very seriously."

Criticized by some as being too heavy on symbolism, Senate Bill 150 nonetheless created the state's first program in which those who apply fertilizers on 50 or more acres of land can be certified and trained in what's known in the industry as best management practices.

Its intent is to create a system that identifies those who make the effort to more responsibly apply nutrients and helps the state of Ohio track fertilizer sales.

Mr. Zehringer said the Ohio DNR also wants farmers to know it has $1.25 million available through restructured programs for better land-use programs.

Half of that sum is dedicated to helping farmers plant cover crops that can reduce agricultural runoff.

The remaining $625,000 is to help them build controlled drainage structures underneath their farms to keep as much runoff as they can from entering ditches and streams that flow into the lake.

Reducing runoff

The structures help back water from a drainage pipe up into the field and make it possible for farmers to time releases, Bethany McCorkle, Ohio DNR communications director, said.

Videos describing the structures are at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbsCrFzQyY0 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=yn-pKci8eJo. Northwest Ohio farmers in those videos describe how the structures keep more nutrients on their land and reduce their impact on ditches and streams while also safeguarding their land against drought.

"Certainly, the events in Toledo did bring the issue more into focus," Ohio Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said.

Mr. Gardner is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 150 and authored an amendment earlier this year to the state budget that allowed the region to get another $10 million for western Lake Erie improvement projects.

About $6 million of that money is going to a research project, which was announced in July, to help study the viability of alternatives to open-lake disposal of sediment from the Toledo shipping channel.

Ohio Rep. Tim Brown (R., Bowling Green) said the challenges "are multifaceted and it will require a multifaceted approach to solve."

The Ohio Environmental Council lauded the Kasich administration for offering the no-interest loans for sewerage systems and water plants, but said Ohio "needs more than just voluntary efforts to win the 'front-line battle' to protect Lake Erie."

Another one of the state's major environmental groups, the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, said it welcomed the Kasich administration's initiatives and called them "one more step in the right direction."

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.

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(c)2014 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

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Source: Blade (Toledo, OH)


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