Watershed: Meet the Woman Tasked with Promoting and Protecting Lake Erie

Jul 2, 2019

The Cuyahoga River and many other Northern Ohio streams and rivers are part of the Lake Erie Watershed, which encompasses 33 of Ohio's 88 counties, or more than one-third of the state. The lake provides drinking water to millions of people.

This week our series "Watershed" is taking a closer look at Lake Erie.

The Ohio Lake Erie Commission works to protect and promote the lake. Commission Director Joy Mulinex talks about the value of the lake to Ohio.

Lake Erie has a significant impact on the state's economy.

"There is a $15 billion tourism industry here in Ohio along the eight counties that border Lake Erie," Mulinex said. "So we certainly want to maintain that industry and make sure that Ohioans and other folks are coming to the state to fish or swim or just hang out along the lakeshore."

Mulinex grew up in Toledo. She earned degrees from Miami University in Oxford and the University of Oregon. She worked on Great Lakes policy for Mike DeWine when he was a U.S. Senator. She still has family in Toledo through which she has personal knowledge of the drinking water problems algae caused there in August 2014

You can't really put a value on ensuring clean and safe drinking water. It's critical to everyone.

"There are nearly 3 million Ohioans who rely on Lake Erie for drinking water," she said. "You can't really put a value on ensuring clean and safe drinking water. It's critical to everyone."

In the early days of her new position, which she started in February, Mulinex toured the state with the director of the agriculture department and others to listen to constituents. She found a variety of viewpoints when it  comes to concerns about Lake Erie. 

"Every opinion is slightly different, depending on what you're using Lake Erie for. So certainly the charter boat captains who depend on Lake Erie and the fisheries, for their livelihoods, they have a lot of concern about overall water health and what's happening with algal blooms," she said.

"It's also about making sure there's water affordability," she continued. "There are communities dealing with urban runoff. So the challenges are different, depending on your perspective, but they're all things that I think the state of Ohio can address, and I look forward to those challenges and working with all the different groups."

Agricultural runoff has been identified as the main cause of harmful algae blooms in the lake.

"There's more to it than just the fertilizers, but they are the largest loading contributor. They feed the algae. And depending on weather conditions, we can have a significant bloom, or in some drier years, it's not so bad," Mulinex said.

She said farmers have been reluctant to implement changes because they're concerned it could hurt their bottom lines. She said DeWine's H2Ohio plan could provide incentives to help mitigate the financial risks. 

The conservation practices she mentioned include the creation of buffer strips along waterways to capture runoff.

"There are different water management practices to capture water and slow it down," she said. "Injection fertilization is another great tool that we're hopeful farmers can better utilize. If you're putting the fertilizer under the surface of the soil, it's being directed right to the plant rather than on top, where it is more likely to get washed off." 

Mulinex said the Lake Erie Commission and the state Department of Agriculture purchased the expensive equipment needed to implement injection fertilization. They offer it for rent to farmers, though it's not clear yet whether farmers are interested. 

"We are still waiting for results," Mulinex said. "Ohio State University has done some research into farmers' responses. They've seen that there are roughly a third of the farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin who are willing to engage in conservation practices. And they do. There is a third that is interested. They haven't committed yet, but they're listening. They're a little bit fearful of doing something to hurt their bottom line, but they're still listening. And then there's that other third that we're still working on." 

Mulinex said the discussions she has been part of have had "a good, cooperative spirit of rolling up sleeves, and let's figure out how to solve the problem."

Everyone is working towards the same goal of a healthy Lake Erie.

"Everyone is working towards the same goal of a healthy Lake Erie, good water quality," she said. "We all are drinking the water, and we're all living here. So everyone's working towards the same goal. I think we're on the right path forward."

Mulinex now lives in Lake County with her family, and she shares her favorite Lake Erie spot.