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And I'm Audie Cornish. A giant algae bloom is still making the waters in the western part of Lake Erie look more like pea soup. Toxins from that muck seeped into the water supply of Toledo, Ohio, last weekend. For two days nearly half a million people were banned from using tap water. Just ahead we'll explore this state of the country's water systems. But first the cause of the algae proliferation is no mystery. It's farm runoff. And as Sarah Jane Tribble of member station WCPN reports, farmers are now on the defensive.
SARAH JANE TRIBBLE, BYLINE: Purple dragonflies play on the banks of a shallow creek that runs through Ron Shining's farm. The creek winds its way into Lake Erie about six miles down from his 400 acres of soybeans and corn crops.
RON SHINING: They shouldn't be placing all the blame on to us.
TRIBBLE: Shining is referring to the recent Toledo water crisis. There's been a lot of talk about farm runoff as a major cause of Lake Erie's algae problem. Shining doesn't deny that but he says, he's only using the fertilizer that he needs.
SHINING: We put the minimum on that we can put on because the crop can only absorb so much. And you're wasting your money completely if you put an extra 2 pounds on you've wasted your money because it just does not use it.
TRIBBLE: 40 miles south Paul Herringshaw walks through his soybean fields.
PAUL HERRINGSHAW: That's going to be a two bean pod instead of a three.
TRIBBLE: He says, farmers actually have been working for decades to reduce fertilizer runoff into the lake. Many farmers have cut back or stopped tilling.
HERRINGSHAW: We implemented such things as minimum till, no till, conservation tillage - as an idea to keep the soil in its place with the hope of preventing the runoff of nutrients.
TRIBBLE: Indeed right after the water crisis the Ohio Farm Bureau, which represents 60,000 farmers across the state, went on the offensive. Sending a representative to Toledo and offering reporters a list of farmers to interview. The Bureau has long promoted proper fertilizer techniques. So have local County conservation programs. Mike Liben is with the Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation district.
MIKE LIBEN: It affects all of us around here. So we're trying to do the best we can and, you know, show that there are some different ways we can hopefully help make better water quality.
TRIBBLE: Water quality experts are still trying to understand why phosphorus from crop fertilizer is seeping into the lake at rates not seen in decades. And there is growing concern that the algae is feeding off of other sources - such as runoff from livestock farms and sewage plants. Most experts still believe that phosphorus is the main cause of algae on the lake and efforts to improve the water largely focus on farming. Earlier this summer Ohio lawmakers passed a measure requiring most farmers to be certified before applying fertilizer. But it's unclear how much this will affect the lake.
SANDY BEND: I went out last night. You could hear the wash of the waves and what I saw was putty - literally green putty.
TRIBBLE: Sandy Bend is Lake Erie's water keeper.
BEND: The water wasn't even like water anymore. It is disgusting. It is putrid. It's awful.
TRIBBLE: Yet Bend doesn't lay all the blame on the farmers. Instead she says other sources such as sewage and livestock should be considered as well. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Jane Tribble.
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