Lake Erie rights law passed to fight farming water pollution

Lake Erie’s status as an Ohio landmark and freshwater source has not changed in the past month, but its legal status as an entity has.

Toledo voters gave Lake Erie legal rights in a special election with a 61 percent “yes” vote. These protections allow citizens to sue on the lake’s behalf in cases where it is severely ecologically harmed by pollution.

Bowling Green is 29 miles from the shores of Lake Erie, but it still is greatly affected by the lake’s status.

“We still draw our drinking water from the Maumee River,” said Tim Davis, a researcher for BGSU’s Lake Erie Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health. The water quality in the river, a tributary of the lake, can still be “harmed by algal blooms,” he added.

The Western Basin of Lake Erie is no stranger to explosions of algae. The microscopic life emits toxins, which cut Toledo’s drinking water supply severely in both 2014 and 2017.

Davis said most of the fault for these algal blooms comes from agricultural run-off. Nutrients from local farming operations get into water sources like the Maumee River and enable bursts of algae reproduction. Bowling Green, which also lies in the watershed of the Portage River, is connected to the Lake Erie ecosystem and requires a water treatment plant to protect against toxic water.

He said, however, that it is important not to “demonize” those who pollute – that it is more important to “work with agricultural communities in our region” to protect water sources.

Davis described his work at the center as research conducted to inform policy. He and other researchers at the center, like George Bullerjahn, work to research how “robust management practices … mitigate” against negative environmental consequences.

Davis declined to speak about the nature of the Bill of Rights itself.

The bill, pitched by Toledoans for Safe Water, will exist as an amendment to the city’s charter, with language emphasizing the lake’s ability to “exist, flourish and naturally evolve.” This could help ensure the law itself is protected more than other standard city resolutions.

However, different challenges to the amendment appeared soon after its passage.

Drewes Farms, a soy, alfalfa, wheat and soybean farm, sued the City of Toledo one day after the passage, claiming the bill and its adoption into city law to be unconstitutional and harmful to their operations. The partnership’s filing added that similar local laws have been struck down in different parts of the country.

The group also said that though city legislators and the bill’s supporters treated it as an environmentalist message, “the City of Toledo’s ‘message’ has very real and significant consequences for farmers and other businesses throughout northern Ohio.”