But others consider it a good opportunity to reevaluate agricultural practices.
This past February, a group of environmental activists and concerned citizens from Toledo, Ohio, managed to get a Bill of Rights passed on behalf of Lake Erie. The lake has a right to "exist, flourish, and naturally evolve," the document states.
The bill was inspired by a crisis that occurred in 2014, when Toledo's water supply became contaminated by microcystins, a blue-green algae that was blooming in the southwest corner of the lake. Civil Eats reports, "If it comes in contact with the skin, microcystin causes rashes; if ingested, it can also cause vomiting and liver damage." Eventually it was determined that the algae blooms were caused, at least in part, by agricultural runoff.The Bill of Rights was created preserve water quality and ensure such contamination never recurs, but it has enraged farmers throughout the region who view it as a threat to their livelihoods. As described by Nicole Rasul in Civil Eats, the months following the bill's passing have consisted of lawsuits against the city, calling the bill "vague, unconstitutional, and unlawful," and resulting in the city agreeing on March 18 to hold off temporarily from enforcing it.
Agriculture is prominent in the area. There are 17 counties in the Maumee watershed, which covers 4 million acres and is the biggest watershed in the Great Lakes. More than 70 percent of this land is used for farming.
Animal feeding operations throughout the watershed have expanded rapidly over the past 15 years, from 9 million animals in 2005 to 20.4 in 2018. But, as the Environmental Working Group states, only operations above a certain size are subject to regulation by government agencies, which means there's little reliable information on where and how many of these facilities exist, and the amount of manure and phosphorus they produce.
Data for permitted facilities in the state reveals that 900,000 solid tons of manure and 1.5 billion gallons of liquid manure were produced in 2017. Rasul writes, "In the western Lake Erie watershed, the 64 permitted operations alone produced nearly a quarter of the solid manure in the state and almost half of the liquid manure."
Much of this manure is sold to farmers who use it to fertilize croplands, both in solid and liquid form. This is contentious for a few reasons. First, some argue there's too much manure in the region for it to be applied to farmland at "an agronomic rate" and an alternative means of disposal needs to be found. Second, farmers shouldn't be spraying liquid manure and should focus on spreading solid instead, as it's not so prone to runoff.
All of this goes to show that the fight between the two sides is fierce and there is a lot at stake. Some believe it's not all or nothing, that there are ways of farming – and even applying fertilizer – that don't threaten the lake. Joe Logan, a farmer and president of the Ohio Farmers Union, does acknowledge that Lake Erie's pollution problem is driven by agriculture runoff:
"He tells producers who feel threatened by the Bill of Rights that their livelihoods are not in jeopardy if they aren’t over-fertilizing their fields or applying manure haphazardly. 'We [didn’t] get into the situation with the phosphorus levels we have right now without having a few bad actors,' he says."
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, but one thing is for sure: we can't have our meat and eat it too. This problem is driven by consumption habits and we, as consumers, need to take responsibility for the food choices we make that have a direct impact on the health of our waterways.
It's no longer business as usual. The world is changing, we're more aware of what's going on behind closed barn doors, and the pressure is only going to mount on governments to implement stricter environmental regulations and oversight.
In the meantime, the people behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from other communities and countries. Clearly it's something to which many people can relate.