CELINA - Five western Ohio farmers are in deep manure with the state. Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials say the farmers, all located near streams that flow to Grand Lake St. Marys, missed a Dec. 15 deadline to file plans to more tightly control the livestock waste they spread on their fields.
Now, they face daily fines if they don't file a plan or request a hearing by February.
"They've had two years to comply," said Bethany McCorkle, a Natural Resources spokeswoman.
Experts say excess phosphorus from manure that washes off fields during spring rainstorms fuels the toxic blue-green algae that plague the 13,000-acre Grand Lake every summer.
Mandatory manure-management plans for 155 farms were part of a cleanup plan created by agency officials who declared Grand Lake a distressed watershed in January 2011.
The plans rely on regular soil tests to determine the amount of phosphorus already in the ground. Farmers would spread manure based on how much more phosphorus their fields can handle. Farmers with too much manure would have to make other plans, including moving it to fields outside Grand Lake's watershed. At least one of the farmers said she is cooperating with the state. Sarah Franck said she and her husband, Douglas, thought they had a plan in place.
"We've had a manure-management plan for 15, 20 years, but we needed it updated," Franck said.
Farmers Gary Homan and James Wuebker did not return calls seeking comment. Tim Schwieterman declined to comment, and William Stachler could not be reached.
Letters the state sent each farmer on Jan. 7, called "chief's orders," are rare for state soil and water officials. They typically try to reduce farm pollution through voluntary programs that offer federally funded grants and rental payments. State officials are relying on these and other voluntary efforts to combat worsening toxic algae in Lake Erie.
McCorkle said government-ordered restrictions were necessary in Grand Lake's case.
The number of cows, hogs and chickens on Mercer County farms more than doubled over the past 20 years, according U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. The nearly 10 million animals produce more than 1.6 million tons of manure each year.
"Farmers have had to increase the number of livestock on hand in order to pay the mortgage and the bills," said Joe Logan, agricultural programs director for the Ohio Environmental Council.
Spreading more manure over the same farm fields overloaded the soil with phosphorus. Logan said he believes that some farmers have no place to take their manure.
"I think for a lot of these folks there is an environmental tipping point where you simply run out of land," Logan said. "If all the farmers around you are doing the same thing, sooner or later it's like a musical-chairs scenario."
Franck declined to say how many acres she has on her farm, which she said holds 200 dairy cows.
"We did have to go and have some acreage that belongs to other people to have enough (land) to spread our manure," Franck said.