BY IGNAZIO MESSINA, BLADE STAFF WRITER
DUNDEE, Mich. — In an effort to combat the toxic organic sludge known as blue-green algae, which has plagued western Lake Erie for years, killing fish and hampering water recreation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be handing out $2 million to farmers in three states.
Two U.S. senators, two congressmen, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the plan Friday at Cabela's in Dundee.
The money is to be used to help farmers in designated parts of Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana prevent phosphorus from entering Western Lake Erie Basin waterways.
Mr. Vilsack was joined by senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and U.S. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and John Dingell (D., Dearborn, Mich.).
The funding allocation is part of an effort to improve water quality and support jobs in Ohio that are generated through the hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation industries tied to Lake Erie, Senator Brown said.
"A healthy Lake Erie is vital to Ohio's prosperity, and achieving this goal requires a comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck strategy," Mr. Brown said. "These new resources will enable farmers to employ the best conservation practices possible and demonstrate how farmers can contribute to revitalizing Lake Erie and the recreation, tourism, and boating industries the lake supports."
Applications for funding are expected to be available at local Natural Resources Conservation Service offices by April 27.
Selected projects will pilot innovative new practices, such as biofilters and controlled drainage, to address phosphorus runoff.
Mr. Vilsack said farmers and ranchers are on the front line of this environmental concern.
"This funding will help farmers take necessary steps to improve and protect the environmental health of the Lake Erie Basin, preserve habitat for the region's fish and wildlife, and protect the over 100,000 jobs that Lake Erie helps support," he said.
Mr. Vilsack also said the program would require farmers to use strategies proved to capture phosphorus and that the efforts would be monitored.
Mr. Dingell said the region's access to Lake Erie has made it incredibly attractive, and Lake Erie needs to be cleaned up as it was decades ago.
He said efforts to divert the water to other states would be blocked.
Senator Brown, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, launched "Grown in Ohio," a listening session tour to get input from Ohio farmers, this year. Last year, he invited Dave White, chief of the Natural Resource Conservation Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to visit the Western Lake Erie basin.
The algae bloom contributed to the "dead zone" in Lake Erie's central basin, where fish can't live, and officials worry that it will threaten the lake's tourism industry, valued at $10 billion and derived from counties along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can excrete liver and nerve toxins that can sicken animals and people who come into contact with it. Runoff of fertilizer, manure, and sewage contributes phosphorus that feeds blue-green algae.
Warning signs were posted at public beaches in eight state parks last summer, including Maumee Bay and Kelleys Island on Lake Erie, and Grand Lake St. Marys in west central Ohio. The state spent millions last summer fighting blue-green algae in Grand Lake St. Marys.