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Oct 20, 5:22 PM EDT

EPA announces $8.6 million to help farmers curb runoff blamed for Lake Erie algae blooms



TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Three states will receive a combined $8.6 million in federal grants to reduce phosphorus runoff blamed for the kind of harmful algae growth in western Lake Erie that left more than 400,000 people without drinkable tap water for two days in August, officials said Monday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is awarding grants to Ohio, Michigan and Indiana to provide farmers with technical assistance and incentives while improving the measurement of phosphorus loads in Lake Erie tributaries, regional director Susan Hedman said.

"The importance of taking a regional approach to address the impact of harmful algae blooms on Lake Erie is imperative," said James Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, has been plagued with large blooms of cyanobacteria - commonly known as blue-green algae - for more than a decade. They produce a toxin that can kill pets and livestock and cause liver damage in humans. An outbreak in August prompted the drinking water ban for much of northwestern Ohio, including Toledo, and southeastern Michigan.

Experts blame the outbreaks largely on phosphorus that washes into the lake from fertilized farmland, as well as from sewage treatment plants and septic tanks.

After the August incident, EPA officials met with state and federal agencies to determine the most urgent needs for federal money that could help reduce pollution causing the algae growth, Hedman said. Additional funding will be announced soon through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an Obama administration program focusing on the region's most serious environmental threats.

The grants will enable Ohio to expand water quality monitoring in the Maumee River watershed, a leading source of phosphorus, said Craig Butler, director of the state's environmental protection department.

Michigan will hire four technicians to join three others working with farmers in the Lake Erie watershed to cut phosphorus runoff, said Jim Johnson, environmental stewardship director with the state agriculture department. Among practices they're encouraging is keeping water on croplands long enough for sediments and nutrients to drop off before it flows to streams and lakes.

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