By Mark Peters and Matthew Dolan

The drinking-water crisis in one of Ohio's largest cities is drawing attention to a new requirement for farmers in the state: a license to fertilize.

The certification is the biggest step Ohio has taken to control nutrient runoff from farms, seen as a key cause of algal blooms in Lake Erie. Those blooms are blamed for a two-day "do-not-drink" advisory in Toledo and its suburbs that was lifted Monday.

A big part of Toledo's problem comes from the Maumee River, which drains a broad swath of agricultural land, feeding the bloom on Toledo's end of the lake. Other major cities near the Great Lakes such as Chicago and Detroit haven't experienced similar restrictions, but some are voicing new concerns about the potential threats to their drinking-water supplies.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on Sunday signed a bill requiring each community water-supply system to designate an operator who will be directly responsible for supply and distribution, as well as a separate measure designed to reduce dumping medications down the toilet, which affects water supplies. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday echoed calls for mayors of Great Lakes cities to hold a summit on water issues in the wake of the recent crisis.

Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins said Tuesday afternoon that the metropolitan region needs to reduce water usage for the next four days "in order to conduct some maintenance that will keep our water system in strong operating condition through the current algal bloom but over the long term as well." He said that at the Toledo area's main water-treatment plant, crews are repairing one of the six flocculators, which mix raw water from the lake with chemicals to help remove sediment and algae.

The International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian group monitoring the Great Lakes, in February called for cutting the daily amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie by nearly half by 2022 in a bid to protect drinking water as well as fish. The report urged other states, including Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, as well as parts of Canada, to stop farmers from applying fertilizers on snow-covered or frozen ground to help reduce nutrient levels in waterways.

Regulators say the new Ohio licenses, which will become mandatory in 2017 and will require farmers to take a one-day class, are aimed at cutting fertilizer use by showing farmers how they can apply less nutrients without hurting crop yields. The law also allows regulators to revoke such certifications if problems are found on a farm.

"This is a big deal. We recognize it, andwe're going to resolve it," said Adam Sharp, vice president of public policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

But environmentalists argue much more aggressive steps are needed to prevent repeat occurrences of what happened in Toledo.

"This isn't a matter of farmers fine-tuning what they're doing," said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwest advocacy group. "This requires a substantial rethinking of how nitrogen and phosphorus is used in the agriculture sector."

Some state legislators like state Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo) are now pushing Ohio to do more to speed up implementation of the law and impose greater regulations on animal manure used as fertilizer.

"When it comes to the lake, we remain vigilant, and as we do our after-action review of the events in Toledo, we'll be looking for any new ways and ideas to continue to improve policies that impact the lake, " Rob Nichols,a spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said in an email Tuesday.

Nationwide, progress has been made when it comes to better fertilizer management, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Farmers and retailers have increased demand for nutrient-efficient products and helped to reduce fertilizer loss by an average of 25% on half a million acres in six states, including Ohio, while also keeping up or increasing crop yields, the group said.

"Farmers are already doing the right thing," said Karen Chapman, an Ohio-based program manager for agriculture sustainability for the national environmental group.

Still, the response by farmers and regulators, not just in Ohio, but in farm states across the Midwest, has drawn criticism from other environmental groups that don't see progress. They are fighting in court to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on nutrient levels for lakes, streams and rivers.

"Regulators have been afraid to do something about this problem. We think what is going on in Ohio should serve as a wake-up call," said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement Tuesday that it "is working diligently with its partners to combat the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution problems in the U.S." by providing states with technical guidance and resources to help them develop water-quality criteria; helping to restrict where pollutants enter waterways; and funding for the construction and upgrading of municipal wastewater facilities, among other programs.

Write to Mark Peters at mark.peters@wsj.com and Matthew Dolan at matthew.dolan@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 05, 2014 20:02 ET (00:02 GMT)

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