Ohio is taking its biggest step yet toward tackling the algae fouling Lake Erie.
But there's no guarantee it will cut down on the contaminants feeding the algae or slow its spread, which poses a threat to the fish, drinking water and tourism. And it will take several years to determine whether the new rules focusing on farmers will make a difference.
The law will require most farmers to undergo training and be certified by the state before they use commercial fertilizers on their fields.
The goal is to decrease the amount of phosphorus-based fertilizer that runs off fields into streams and rivers and then nourishes the algae in Lake Erie.
"It's a positive step forward, but it's a small step," said Kristen Kubitza, director of water policy for the Ohio Environmental Council.
The law doesn't take effect until 2017 and won't force farmers to use less fertilizer. There also won't be any inspections to make sure farmers are applying the fertilizer correctly. That part is up to them.
The primary focus of the legislation is centered on educating and training the agriculture industry about the need to use new techniques to reduce runoff.
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.
Farm organizations in the state have put $1 million toward research to determine how to keep phosphorus on the fields and out of the waterways. Once completed, it will help teach farmers the best times and ways to apply fertilizer.
"That's where we need to start," said Jerry Bambauer, president of the Ohio Soybean Association.
He said farmers care about the environment and want to see expensive fertilizers stay on their fields instead of being washed into streams. He also thinks the farm community will be more willing to solve the problem once they know why it's happening.
"We'd like to have it solved tomorrow, but it's going to take time no matter how we do it," Bambauer said. "It can't be cleared up overnight. We just don't want it to get worse."
Algae blooms during the summer have become more frequent and troublesome in Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes.
Toxins produced by the algae have contributed to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can't survive. There already is concern that another large algae outbreak could crop up this year following heavy spring rains that washed more pollutants into the lake's tributaries.
Environmental groups and lawmakers in Ohio and other states in the Great Lakes region will be watching to see if the voluntary steps farmers are being asked to take will be enough to turn around the algae problem.
The International Joint Commission, an advisory agency made up of Canadian and U.S. officials, released a report in August that said urgent steps are needed, recommending that governments in both countries require "best management practices" to reduce phosphorus applied to fields.
It also suggested banning the spread of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground.
That idea was pulled from the legislation approved in Ohio.
Rep. Mike Sheehy, a Democrat from the Toledo suburb of Oregon, said not including rules for regulating manure makes the law less effective.
"It's one of those issues that we cannot as a state continue to ignore," he said. "Until we address the issue, we're playing with poison."