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Ohio to help cities with water tests

TOLEDO, Ohio – Ohio’s environmental regulators laid out a plan Thursday to assist cities with testing and treating their drinking water, a first step in the state’s response to last week’s water emergency in Toledo that left 400,000 people without clean tap water.

The state will make $150 million in low- and no-interest loans available so that cities can upgrade water treatment and wastewater plants.

Some of that money can go toward establishing backup water sources or building new water towers, while about $100 million will be for modernizing wastewater plants so they can cut down on the amount of phosphorus being dumped into in rivers and streams, said Craig Butler, director of Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Phosphorus, found in both agriculture runoff and sewage overflows, feeds the blue-green algae found on Lake Erie that produces the toxin found in Toledo’s water supply nearly two weeks ago.

Residents in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan who get their tap water from Toledo were warned for two days not to drink the water or use it to cook or brush their teeth.

The water emergency in the state’s fourth-largest city put a spotlight on the lake’s algae problem, which has been growing for more than a decade, and drawn attention to Toledo’s aging water treatment system and how cities monitor their drinking water.

Ohio EPA will put $1 million toward new drinking water testing equipment and training for operators of water treatment facilities.

At the same time, the state’s agriculture and natural resources departments are moving toward putting in place programs to reduce farm runoff and to encourage farmers to make changes to reduce how much phosphorus gets into waterways.

“It’s a group effort. This is a good first step,” Butler said.

A new law adopted earlier this year will require most farmers to undergo training and be certified by the state before they use commercial fertilizers. The goal is to decrease the amount of phosphorus-based fertilizer that washes off the fields.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and other agriculture industry groups have been asking farmers to take proactive steps for more than a year and do their part to reduce phosphorus runoff before government regulators step in and impose their own restrictions.

But since the water emergency in Toledo, a number of environmental groups have said it’s time for strict regulations on the agriculture industry, including banning the spread of manure on frozen and snow-covered fields.