Featured Advocate: Sandra (Sandy) Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper

Lake Erie Waterkeeper logoToledo, Ohio

The Lake Erie Waterkeeper program “seeks to have fishable, swimmable, drinkable water for the Lake Erie Watershed.” This goal for Lake Erie’s waters is being accomplished through advocacy, education, litigation, and innovation. 

This interview was conducted on August 2, 2021. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

River Network (RN): I know that the goal of Lake Erie Waterkeeper is to have fishable, swimmable, drinkable water for the Lake Erie Watershed. For the purposes of this interview, we will primarily focus on drinking water. To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at Lake Erie Waterkeeper, and how you first got involved with drinking water issues?  

Sandy Bihn (SB): I’m the Executive Director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper. We’ve been around since about 2005. We used to be the Western Basin of Lake Erie and we expanded to the whole lake just to be able to represent the waters in a more holistic way. Drinking water became a part of it in the 2013 and 14 issues here, with the algae problem. When the city of Toledo told its customers not to drink the water for three days because of the harmful algae Cyanobacteria Microcystin. The year before that actually, in a small community, Carroll township just east of here, they too, were told not to drink their water because of the Microcystin. 

It happened two years back-to-back, and raised a huge awareness. At the time there were no drinking water standards, they still really aren’t for Microcystin because when you study drinking water, you realize that the standards have not been changed since the 1990s. Now they just issue recommendations for water plants, but that has been done since the Toledo crisis. And I think PFAS just points it out as well- that there’s a lot in our water that we don’t know about. There could be a lot coming in at some given point into the water intakes that we don’t test for, we’re not aware of. I think we’re behind in drinking water and standards, that’s the practical side of it. The difficult side is, how much do you have to test for? What do you test for? What do you know? What is the cost? It’s hard to think of cost-benefit when it comes to drinking water in some ways, but there has to be some practicality to it. The water plants get pretty concerned that they’re going to be required to test a lot of stuff that they’ll never encounter, with little to no benefit. I think that’s part of the conundrum.  

But drinking water, especially with surface waters, this being the greatest surface drinking water area in the world, it really is an incredible place… but I also think, in terms of how we manage it, one of the things I’ve become aware of and working on is that we have watershed management as part of the Clean Water Act, and when you get something as enormous as the Great Lakes, the lakes themselves- and actually this happens in Okeechobee and other places around the country and around the world- where you zero in on a watershed. But it’s really that watershed may be able to “tolerate” something, but as you accumulate something downstream, watershed after watershed, it can become problematic. The way we look at water today, I think needs to be changed, in that I think the downstream sources, where the impacts are felt and that the cumulative impacts are felt from the upstream need to be looked at, not only from a perspective of drinking water, but from a perspective of the algae, the nutrients, and plastics and everything else. 

We need to start to say, “just because it may be okay in my watershed and I’m only giving you a little to the next one, if I’m adding and adding and adding, then that becomes an issue.” I think that’s an area we haven’t looked at, when you look at the Great Lakes, people don’t really study ‘a lake’ per se. We do, we look at it probably the only organization in the Great Lakes that really looks at a lake and tracks it and tries to talk about it and find the science and the research and what people are seeing. But the zebra mussels in Lake Michigan, I mean, they’ve been around for a very long time. They came into Lake Erie and the warning signs were here- it’s the lake, so who speaks for the lakes, and who watches the lakes changes, not only for drinking water, but for all aspects of water quality. 

RN: There are many facets related to clean drinking water, including issues of access, quality, affordability, and safety. Where do you focus your work? Do you primarily work at the local (city/county), state, regional or federal level? 

SB: We work with the local governments a lot. We have an executive order resolution that about a dozen communities have passed, asking the federal government to better manage the Lake Erie problem, with the algae predominantly. As far as water affordability and access—the problem, the reason the water bills (and wastewater bills) are so high here, are because when we have a problem, like sewage overflows, it just gets added to the bills, we, the users get to pay for it. That’s true in the water treatment, on the algae side, if we’re able to solve the problem or reduce it to a level so we don’t have as much, then the water plants won’t have to treat as much, won’t have to pay as much. 

I don’t know that there’ll ever be a savings because rarely do you get a reduction in your water bill. I don’t know that that’s ever happened. But at least it’ll stop, in terms of growing, because right now it’s just getting worse. I don’t think you can address affordability well unless you address source water. The better the source waters are, the better the quality, and the more reasonable your bill should be.  

On the wastewater side, I don’t know, the whole premise of 90% controls and with climate change and everything… we’ve got a community here, a small community rural community that is now being forced to put in a sewage system. And they have septic tanks and they do need to be changed, and they are failing and they’re bad. But somehow it seems like on the agricultural side, which I work on a lot, the cost benefit and the economic scales are really front and center to that discussion. When it comes to water, the cost of water and water treatment and wastewater treatment, we don’t use that same model at all, we just pass the cost on. The people in that rural community are being asked to pay $200 a month for some very long period of time. People on fixed incomes are really hurt by that. 

RN: Access to clean drinking water intersects with public health, environmental justice, climate resiliency, and other issues tied to our health and well-being, like housing. How does your work fit into these broader systems? 

SB: We don’t get into that aspect of it as much. We’re more about the lake and water quality and making that be the driver to help with the other issues. Certainly, in something like lead pipes, we support and sign on the letters that help with that. We don’t work a lot on energy, I’m an advocate of energy efficiency, that if we helped the older housing stock, we can help affordability by helping people with windows doors, furnaces, water heaters, that would reduce the amount that they pay. I remember sitting in a room with some people, it was in the wintertime, and they were talking about their bills. The one poor lady who looked very poor said her gas bill was $800 a month, and I knew that the reason it’s that high is because windows leak, doors leak, furnace isn’t efficient. 

I think water is one piece, but I think energy and efficiency for affordability is probably a greater issue in terms of what it’s costing them and what’s going on in their lives. That’s just a perception, not a factual. I think sometimes we just look at things that might be more, in the limelight. I think if you really looked at the people in the urban areas that are hardest hit, I think, energy efficiency would be more beneficial to those people than even the water component. 

RN: In Ohio, are there mechanisms for consolidation or regionalization of water systems that the state is providing access to funding to make those transitions for? 

SB: The state has been encouraging that. Toledo just got a consolidation of water authority.  They’re asking them to consolidate and I think it will help, but I also think that government has never managed like a business, and I think that becomes a challenge as well. 

RN: In terms of the climate change piece of it, would you say that the increase in algae blooms is tied to that or is that because of increase runoff from agriculture? Where do you see the source of the problem? 

SB: Definitely climate change is a contributing factor because of the heavy rains, that’s a driver. But we learned before in the ’60s and ’70s when the Clean Water Act was adopted, it was adopted for chemicals and metals coming out of the pipes, right? And MPDES permits, they no longer are allowed to discharge out of their pipes. Companies found ways not to do that, they just internally figured it out. But the other piece of the recovery of waters in the US, especially here in Lake Erie, was the algae piece. We had a huge algae problem back then and it wasn’t based on the industrial waste, industrial waste was awful and needed to be corrected, but at that time it was based on laundry detergents, phosphorous in laundry detergent and the phosphorous coming into wastewater plants. Two thirds of it came from laundry detergent So, if you want to reduce the outfalls of phosphorus from the wastewater plants, you had to reduce the laundry detergent component, because they just couldn’t treat enough to get it out. It was a 20-some year battle. 28 states put out laws that forbid phosphorous in laundry detergent, it was a big battle, and today we don’t have phosphorous in laundry detergent, pretty much anywhere. The point I’m making is that it was a change, and when I looked into the history of this, we changed from what I call ringer washers to automated washers we also were putting in wastewater treatment systems where there were pipes, everything coming out of your washing machine was going into the wastewater plant. A number of things happened that triggered those blooms that was changed. 

I live on a lake and we build our home in ‘87, and we started seeing the blooms in the late ‘90s. I mean, really, really bad. We put in a pool, because we would no longer go swimming in the lake. We got rid of our wave runner because the algae choked the intake. It was bad and it changed very quickly. The change that happened here is that the confined animals started coming into the watershed and we’ve now learned that they’ve grown in the numbers. The issue with the combined animals- and the change- is that we used to pasture them so they used to be over a lot more acres. Probably the same number of animals was in our watershed, but they were spread out over 800 farmers. Today it’s 40, just an estimated number, but the scale of it—we lost 80% of our family farmers raising livestock down to the consolidated industrialized kind of system that we have today. And in that change, the manure piece somehow got left as it was, as though they were still pasturing. The amount of manure produced, the proximity of the manure to the barns, and the fact that they have to apply the manure as a liquid, just a practical standpoint, they can’t put all those chunks on the field in their areas, as gross as it may sound. 

It’s just too much manure into a smaller area, and this is happening in China today. If you look at the 650-mile algal bloom in China. The Netherlands is the leading country in the world on this issue. Over and over and over again, the literature is very clear that when you confine animals, and you produce so much manure, it is a problem. It’s that change that is really driving, not only here but in Ontario, Chesapeake, in the Gulf of Mexico, certainly in other places across the country and we’ve now been told by the Ohio Department of Agriculture that from 2002 to 2017 we had an 88% increase in the number of animals in this watershed, as well as manure, obviously. The numbers are there, the evidence is there. People need to just step up and start dealing with it.  

We need to separate the commercial fertilizer piece and the manure piece, because commercial fertilizers continued and the makeup of that commercial fertilizer has changed to make it more soluble, that’s a fact. The other fact is that the number of family farmers who grow the crops have reduced their use of commercial phosphorus in the fertilizer by about 40%. If we’re just relying on that 40% reduction and we didn’t have the manure increases, we should be there, right? At the same time, some farmers are really helping us and reducing it, other farmers are increasing the amount of manure or the amount of phosphorous coming into the system, so we’re not making any progress. We need to separate out commercial fertilizer, the composition’s changed, but the reality is their uses changed and going down significantly from what it used to be. 

RN: Part of our desire to build a Great Lakes directory is to foster connections across organizations so they can work together on shared goals. Are there other organizations that you’ve partnered with and built effective coalitions with? If so, what work did you do to build trust, designate roles and responsibilities, and successfully come together? 

SB: We certainly work with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Clean Water Network, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Audubon. We work with a lot of different groups. The push lately has been more on the affordability and the lead pipe issue. We’ve kind of stayed away from that because there’s a lot of people addressing it, and as I said, I don’t think it gets at the root cause of the issues. Now we’re partnering on the CAFO issue, trying to educate and grow. Freshwater Future, they’re certainly helping us, we’ve gotten some grants from them as well. The networking is there, we know who the players and who the people are, and we certainly talk and discuss, but, as with anything else it’s all with funding. How the NGOs happen—we’re pretty pure in what we do, it’s all about the lake in the water, that’s it. I think it makes us a bit different in terms of how we function than other organizations. 

What have been the biggest hurdles or challenges facing your organization as you work on drinking water issues?  

Sandy Bihn: Certainly, capacity is an issue and technology and trying to do the outreach. I’ve just come to realize in the last couple days—because I’m working as a board member of the International Joint Commission on Water Quality Advisory Board—and we’re working on a manure project in Western Lake Erie and putting together a committee, it’s been really interesting. I did a speech last week with Lakeside, a community here, with a hog producer. I didn’t realize, but now, this morning I just had another conversation with someone and it kind of throws me, that at this point in time when there’s so much documentation that the problem, here at least, is predominantly from agricultural sources and the manure has been increasing, and so it continues to be a growing challenge. But the farmers are saying, “don’t blame us” and they’re still trying to blame wastewater, trying to point fingers in all directions. It’s frustrating to me. I think it just outta be the sources, and whatever they are, if one watershed it might be wastewater because there might be a discharge there that’s causing problems, another community it may be commercial; it doesn’t matter to me what the source, is it just matters that we help the waters to reduce what’s coming into them in the most economical way. But if we’re all fighting, pointing fingers at each other, it’s kind of like having the argument, without ever solving the problem, and somehow, we have to come… I think that’s not only true in the agricultural communities, but in the NGOs, just to focus on sources and focus on a solution. Because here when we look at the algae issue, every year we get the forecast. There’s the annual forecast with NOAA and Sea Grant and Heidelberg and all the other great people that do that. They’ll tell you where the algae are, if it’s got Microcystin, if it’s got Cyanobacteria. And we are really very protective of telling people on the lake to go in, or not go in. We just do it in the water intakes, they really monitor very carefully the water intakes to see if cyanobacteria are getting into them. A+, this is a model for the rest of the world, but on source reduction, solving the problem, I challenge you to look anywhere and find that. 

Every year we’re talking about: here’s what the impacts are, and will it be a big bloom or a small bloom? How do we get out of this mess? The only way we get out is to reduce sources, as we all know. 

RN: What are the major campaigns or policy priorities that you’re currently working on? What kind of strategies are you using to advance your goals? 

SB: Obviously CAFOs and manure is a huge one.  

We always support wetlands work and we have done some sturgeon reintroduction in the Maumee. We do education and outreach- we made coasters with Lake Erie facts, because I think if you can get people aware more of the waters and give more information for discussion and understanding that I think it helps to instill the importance of water and the ability to tell elected officials to do it.  

We have a really growing great relationship with local governments here. The State of Ohio is more of a challenge- it just is. The politics here are very deep and very pro agriculture at the expense of not wanting to really look at the facts, which is frustrating.  

Previously when I’ve done work, the Federal Government was extremely helpful and just doing the science and the research factually and I had a lot of appreciation for that. Maybe this just this is pie in the sky, but, in this day and age, fact doesn’t seem to be as important as it used to be. And that’s very frustrating for me because the work that we do is always… We did an open lake dumping issue some years ago where we pushed for a ban on open lake dumping, we have that band today, but we probably never should have had it. It was based on the hypothesis that the phosphorus that was being dredged and open lake dumping was contributing to the algae. We’ve now learned that that was never the case. There is phosphorus in the sediments in the lake but they’re bound, and the only time they get released is when there’s oxygen depletion. Studying Lake Erie, you understand these waters here in the western basin turn over every 30 to 50 days—we don’t have an oxygen problem here, because the Detroit River gives us 90%—there’s constant flow down here. So, then it pushes out to the other end and we have a very low retention rate for the whole lake of 2.6 years. In the central based around Cleveland, they have a dead zone and the phosphorus and metals get released and it creates a problem, but every watershed is different, every water is different, it’s really important to understand them.

RN: In terms of the CAFOs and the manure issues, what kind of strategies are you using right now to try to make changes to address the source of algae blooms? 

­SB: We’re making progress, the study that was done by ELPC and EWG was amazing. I did a little bit of background stuff with them in terms of just understanding the watershed. That was released in 2019. Since then, the Ohio Department of Agriculture has come up with- they said it was 40% increase between 2005-2018- Department of Agriculture said it was more like 88%- so they were very conservative in what they did. The point is that we’re building fact base that shows the changes and the differences. 

We track every permit in Ohio that comes for a CAFO permit. And this year they’re adding the equivalent of about a quarter of a million people’s waste, they’re adding cows and pigs and chickens, to the very watershed that we’re seeking the reductions and just informing the public and educating them has helped. 

We’ve got an intern that’s doing a study to show increases in CAFOs in Saginaw, actually, because that’s one of the areas in the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative. We’re going to show an increase in the number of animals there. We’re going to do a workshop on this, we’re going to actually show how you can use the template and look at satellite imagery and Department of Agriculture, USDA, census tracts. We have another study that we just gotten funded to look at the changes in phosphorus levels in the streams here and use existing monitoring data so it’ll all be science and data-based. We’re hoping that the two of these will become a model for the rest of the country. 

Most places do not look at changes in numbers, they’ll look at the monitoring data and will not look at the growth in the numbers and what’s happening over time. They tend to be pivotal around processing plants, so we do a lot of work on this and I think we’re getting somewhere and seeing a glimmer of hope, a ray of sunshine. 

RN: What’s your biggest accomplishment to date? What aspect of your work are you most proud of? 

SB: Just looking at facts and trying to find change and to be very open to being wrong. As I said on the open lake dumping, we were wrong. They could still be open lake dumping and it wouldn’t matter, which is a disappointment for me, because the hypothesis was wrong. The greatest achievement for the lake so far, was the Detroit wastewater plant, they are 5% of the source of the phosphorus coming into Lake Erie, and as a single source, if you can reduce that it’s huge. We reduced it by about half, through conversations with them, that’s the greatest algae source reduction that we’ve had. 

I’m reaching out to EGLE and asking them because I’ve seen where the pumps are breaking again and some of the things, we saw back in 2008-9 seem to be reoccurring. Sue McCormick retired from the authority [Great Lakes Water Authority] and I’m worried about that, because she was a conscientious person and… maybe we’re going backwards. The greatest accomplishment is just looking for changes, looking for differences, addressing them professionally, and bringing out the facts as much as we can, and I think that serves the lake the best. 

We’ve got a couple hundred members and would like that to grow. We have the head of our organization is a farmer, and I think that’s really cool and the agriculture community is very much a part of our organization and we reach out to them for information and facts and to make sure that we’re balancing our position on the water with the agricultural community. I think that’s a real strength.  

And I should share that I’m on the International Joint Commission Water Quality Advisory Board and we have done a manure project where we made recommendations about manure to try and manage it. It’s a high-level recommendation, but it’s about the threshold for the manure and the CAFOs: how much phosphorus should be in the soil at any given time. The problem is here, we allow the amount for commercial fertilizer to be a combination of soil content and how much you have to add to have a good crop. Generally, about 30 parts per million of phosphorus, but for CAFOs they are allowing 150 ppm. It’s hugely different and in Ontario they require the same, and what that does there in Ontario is it limits the size of a dairy operation to about 500 cows. They have to apply it in the fields around them, and if they get much further, they have to do soil tests and they have to either get more land or reduce the size of the number of animals. Here, we don’t have anything like that.