A little more than three years after the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland caught fire in 1969, Congress approved the Clean Water Act. It’s coming up on three years since a harmful algal bloom shut down the Toledo drinking water supply, and where are we? We’re hearing predictions of a bigger than average algae bloom in western Lake Erie.
It is too simple to say that in 1969 the culprit was smokestack/pollution pipe industry and in 2017, it’s agriculture. Agriculture’s special place in the policy process — often untouchable when it comes to regulation — is part but not all of the story. Scientific uncertainties are also part. The biggest part is a breakdown in the relationship between the people and their government.
Fed a diet of often insincere gobbledygook, offered symbols instead of substance, frustrated by gridlock, citizens have given up for the most part on expecting (or perhaps even believing in) transformative environmental change like the kind ushered in by the 1972 Clean Water Act. And government is happy to live down to their expectations.
Without a strong and persistent clamoring from the public for a clean Lake Erie, it’s not going to happen.
Many committed farmers, environmental advocates, research scientists and public officials will keep doing their good work in the Erie basin, but at this point it’s hard to see how anywhere close to the desired 40% reduction in phosphorus loadings to the western basin can happen in 8 years.