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Chemical Farmers Must Cut Runoff to save Lake Erie

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To reduce the algae blooms that threaten Lake Erie's tourism economy and public health, phosphorus runoff into northwestern Ohio tributaries to the lake should be cut by 40 percent, a state task force recommended yesterday.

Neighboring states and Canada must also make the lake a priority if its health is to be restored, members of the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force said.

"It's extremely critical," said Jeff Reutter, the director of the Ohio Sea Grant College program and Stone Laboratory on the lake.

The task force's report has 20 recommendations. It calls on Ohio farmers to voluntarily adopt farming practices that can reduce phosphorus runoff from their fields. Some environmental advocates say voluntary compliance is not enough, but state agricultural leaders said more farmers are changing their habits as their knowledge of the lake's plight grows.

"Ohio farmers understand the problem, and they certainly want to be part of the solution," said David Daniels, the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are common in most Ohio lakes but grow thick in water polluted with phosphorus from fertilizer, manure and sewage that rain washes into streams. The algae can excrete liver and nerve toxins that can sicken people, kill pets and threaten fish and wildlife.

It is primarily phosphorus that feeds the algae blooms that have formed in Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio and other inland lakes and ponds.

"It's a statewide problem," Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer said.

The report released yesterday is an update of a 2010 study by the task force, which then concluded "that there are multiple contributors to phosphorus into Lake Erie, but agriculture is the leading source."

The task force suggests updating the phosphorus index farmers use to guide their fertilizer applications and promoting practices that include growing living roots year-round and avoiding fertilizer applications on frozen ground or before rain.    

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