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 a water emergency in Toledo that left 400,000 people without clean tap water.
The state also will commit just over $1 million to help farmers add drainage systems and plant cover crops to reduce the amount of fertilizer that runs off their fields, dumping phosphorus into rivers and streams.
Phosphorus, found in both agriculture runoff and sewage overflows, feeds the blue-green algae found on Lake Erie that produce the toxin found in Toledo's water supply nearly two weeks ago.
Residents in northwestern Ohio and southeastern 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 decade, and drawn attention to Toledo's aging water treatment system and how cities monitor their drinking water.
Researchers believe as much as two-thirds of the phosphorus in Lake Erie comes from farm fertilizers and livestock manure. Some also comes from sewage treatment plants and leaking septic tanks. Ohio officials believe all need to play a role in reducing how much gets into the water.
"It's time to quit pointing fingers," said Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director.
Ohio will make $150 million in interest-free 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.
The announcement came a day after officials from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan met with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago to talk about what needs to be done to improve the water quality in Lake Erie and reduce the blue-green algae.
Representatives from the states talked about short-term and long-term approaches, said Dan Wyant, director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality.
Those included using money from the federal farm bill to reduce agriculture runoff and creating a U.S. health standard for allowable toxin amounts in drinking water. Most states now use a standard set by the World Health Organization.
State leaders also asked for more money to research the invasive zebra mussels, which have helped the algae flourish, and whether the dumping of dredged sediment in Lake Erie plays a role in feeding the algae, Wyant said.
"I don't think we can focus on any one thing," he said. "We have to do them all."
Meanwhile, Ohio's EPA will put $1 million toward new drinking water testing equipment and training for operators of water treatment facilities. It also promised to test drinking for those cities that don't have needed equipment.
"It's a group effort. This is a good first step," Butler said.
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and other agriculture industry groups have been asking farmers to 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.