Ohio Agricultural Law Blog--The Western Lake Erie Impaired Waters Saga Continues

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018
Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law

Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The Ohio EPA has released its draft water quality report for 2018 and the report proposes to list the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie as “impaired.” Readers of the Ag Law Blog will remember that the road to this listing has been long and complicated. The numerous posts we’ve written on this subject can be found by searching “impaired waters” on our blog website.

The controversy began in the fall of 2016, when Michigan and Ohio submitted their respective impaired waters lists to the U.S. EPA. Every two years, a regulation promulgated under the Clean Water Act requires states to turn in a list of their impaired waters. Michigan listed the waters of Lake Erie under its jurisdiction as impaired, while Ohio did not list the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie as impaired. The waters described by Michigan as impaired and those not listed by Ohio are basically one in the same, hence the problem. The U.S. EPA approved Michigan’s list in early 2017, but made no decisions about Ohio’s list.

As a result of the discrepancy over Lake Erie, environmental and other groups sued the U.S. EPA to make a decision about Ohio’s impaired waters list. On May 18, 2017, the U.S. EPA approved Ohio’s list. However, on January 12, 2018, the U.S. EPA withdrew its earlier approval and asked Ohio to compile additional data for a new evaluation of the status of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.

With all of this back and forth and litigation, it is now long past the due date for the 2016 impaired waters list. As a result, the draft water quality report submitted by the Ohio EPA on March 22 contains the 2018 list.

Ohio EPA’s 2018 Draft Water Quality Report

In its draft water quality report, the Ohio EPA outlines the general condition of Ohio’s waters and lists “impaired waters” that are not meeting federal or state water quality goals and waters that have improved to meet water quality standards. For the first time, the EPA includes the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie on its impaired list. The impaired designation is for recreational uses “due to harmful algae” and for drinking water “due to occurrences of microcystin.” (Microcystin are harmful toxins created by blue-green algae. More information about these toxins is here.) Other new areas listed as impaired for drinking water due to harmful algae are Sims Run, parts of the Maumee River, the headwaters to Grand River and the headwaters of Cowan Creek in the Little Miami River watershed.

Next steps and public comments

While an impaired listing may not create immediate change in the Western Basin, it will require Ohio to create total maximum daily loads, which are the amounts of different pollutants allowed to be discharged each day in the open waters. This could eventually mean increased regulation of certain pollutants in the area, which may include agricultural nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen. Only time will tell.

The EPA is accepting written comments on its proposed list of impaired waters. Submit comments by May 4, 2018, to epa.tmdl@epa.ohio.gov, or to Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, Ohio 43216-1049, attn: 303(d) comments. Following public review and comments, the agency will submit a final report to the U.S. EPA. The agency published a news release on the draft water quality report and is hosting an upcoming webinar on the report on April 25, 2018.

Read the EPA's draft water quality report here.

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