On the heels of another dangerous summer algae bloom, groups in the Lake Erie region are looking towards new strategies to tackle nutrient pollution affecting the lake. According to a recent analysis by several groups, measures to reach pollution reduction goals are falling short and, as a result, the region has made little progress since the goals were set.

In 2014, after a toxic algae bloom caused drinking water bans for 500,000 residents in Toledo, Ohio, and similar bans in Ontario, Canada, the Governors of Michigan and Ohio, as well as the Premier of Ontario, agreed to take steps to reduce nutrient pollution by 40 percent by 2025. However, a growing number of environmental groups, citizens, and lawmakers are now arguing that the voluntary measures outlined by the region have little hope in achieving the significant cuts that are necessary.

Just last month, the mayor of Toledo, OH, took the unprecedented step of declaring the western basin of Lake Erie impaired. In so doing, she joins the growing number of groups asking the EPA to declare Lake Erie impaired. If no progress on nutrient reduction is made in the region, the designation could ultimately trigger a region-wide, EPA-enforceable pollution diet, similar to the pollution limits set in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

While wastewater treatment plants, sewer overflows, and urban fertilizer all contribute to the issue, agriculture is now the main contributor to algae blooms. In the Lake Erie Basin, 63 percent of landmass is devoted to agriculture, and a lawyer for the city of Toledo, Joe McNamara, claims that 75 percent of the problem is coming from agriculture. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), row crops (primarily corn and soy), and animal agriculture (concentrated operations of cows, pigs, and chickens) are the top two contributors to nutrient pollution in U.S. waterways. 

The Great Lakes Commission, a Congressionally-appropriated restoration initiative, will begin exploring how to more effectively assist farmers undertake voluntary conservation measures that reduce nutrient outflows, such as buffer strips and cover crops. Congress has appropriated $300 million for the Commission, but the Trump administration’s budget proposal would zero out the program. The Commission has nearly doubled the number of field agents working with farmers and helps cost-share conservation methods like cover cropping seeds and tools.

Local conservation agents agree that producers are interested in transitioning to more sustainable practices, but, as noted by Brian Buehler of the Michigan Natural Resources Conservation Service, “they need to see it make economic sense for them, because you know, it is a business.”

While the Ohio Environmental Council praised the work of farmers to reduce nutrients in the region, Kristy Meyer, Vice President of Policy for the group, questioned the effectiveness of a voluntary approach to nutrient reduction. Progress has been “painfully slow … and lacking the comprehensive approach that is needed to effectively address harmful algal blooms… We need to say enough is enough, it’s time to get this done. Every year there’s a bloom. We need to make changes in a bigger way.”

Climate change is also a complicating factor in the fight against nutrient runoff. According to the National Climate Assessment, heavy downpours in the United States have already increased 30 percent above the 1901 to 1960 average. Scientists predict that globally, dead zones will continue to increase as climate change increases the severity and frequency of precipitation events.

A report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Freshwater Future, Rescuing Lake Erie, identifies implementing best practices on the region’s agricultural lands, green infrastructure projects in urban areas, and improved data collection as all being critical to making measurable progress towards the region's ambitious reduction goals.


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