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Activists hope algae report spurs action

Collaboration results in 16 recommendations


An Oct. 5, 2011, file satellite photo provided by NASA shows algae blooms on Lake Erie.

NASA Enlarge

Excess fertilizers and raw human waste are hardly new problems for western Lake Erie.

But clean-water advocates are hoping a long-awaited report issued last week by the International Joint Commission will put more pressure on the U.S. and Canadian governments to rally around the issue, one that many see as having been dragged out by painstaking bureaucracy and not enough meaningful action.

In its report, “A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms,” the IJC — a State Department-level commission assigned since 1909 to help the two countries resolve mutual boundary water issues — laid out 16 recommendations after collaborating with more than 60 U.S. and Canadian scientists.

The recommendations include: calls for better management practices for agriculture, including better timing for fertilizer application, mandatory certification standards for applicators’ tying crop insurance to soil-conservation performance, and something pretty basic that lake scientists have been urging for years: a ban on manure applications to cropland when the soil is frozen or has snow on it.

The recommendations also call for better sewage controls, including mandatory septic-system inspections, and more work in wetland restoration, a mandatory elimination of phosphorus in lawn fertilizers, and the establishment of a cap on nutrient pollution under the Total Daily Maximum Load provisions of America’s Clean Water Act, known in environmental circles by the abbreviation TMDLs.

The commission’s recommendations differ in scope from others — including the latest report issued last fall by the state of Ohio’s phosphorus task force — as well as the number of mandatory actions it seeks. Many state-level efforts, including legislation now before the Ohio General Assembly, continue to be largely voluntary and incentive-laden programs to minimize impact on the farming industry. One of the biggest criticisms of the pending legislation in Ohio is that it does nothing to address growing concerns about manure generated in the Lake Erie basin by livestock farms big enough to be classified as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

The binational commission’s recommendations came in response to Lake Erie's record algae bloom of 2011.

Last September, Ohio hit a new low in its ongoing battle against algae, though, when the tiny municipal water treatment plant that serves 2,000 customers in Ottawa County’s Carroll Township was so overwhelmed by a toxin called microcystin that the facility was forced offline. Public officials frantically warned people not to drink the water until further notice, using Facebook, Internet Web sites, and any other form of rapid communication they could.

The event marked the first time in Ohio’s history that a water-treatment plant was so overpowered by an algae toxin that it had to be taken out of service. It has become a case study for water treatment plant operators nationally.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada have a duty to residents to develop a TMDL or TMDL-like plan for nutrient reduction and ensure that state and provinces are implementing the plan,” Kristy Meyer, Ohio Environmental Council managing director of agricultural, health, and clean water programs, said.

Neither federal agency issued a response to the recommendations, though both have been largely in support of general phosphorus-reduction efforts for decades.

Runoff and sewage overflows into the Maumee River are cited as the source of 43 percent of the lake’s nutrient pollution.

The report also said more research needs to be done along the Detroit River to understand the impact of untreated releases from the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest in North America but also one that has been plagued by operational problems, in large part because of Detroit’s financial struggles.

In 2011, 3.2 billion gallons of diluted raw sewage and 1.2 million pounds of phosphorus flowed down from that plant to Lake Erie, the report said.

“There seems to be this mystical Ohio/​Michigan/​Ontario line in the water when it comes to the research, with little understanding of how sources from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Ontario collective play a role,” Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper executive director, said.

The TMDL process, as bureaucratic as it sounds, could result in a more holistic and integrated investigation, advocates said.

The report also calls for a better understanding of how placement of dredged silt from the Toledo shipping channel into north Maumee Bay may be contributing to algae growth. Some scientists, such as the University of Toledo’s top algae researcher, Tom Bridgeman, have said the long-standing practice is a contributing source of that pollution.

For Love of Water, or FLOW, a group founded by one of the Great Lakes region’s top water-rights attorneys, Traverse City’s Jim Olson, lauded the International Joint Commission for what it called a “forward-thinking approach” for its commitment to the public trust doctrine.

The public trust doctrine guarantees people the right to fish, boat, swim, and recreate in Lake Erie — to enjoy the protection of water quality and quantity free of impairment, the group said.

“We applaud the IJC for its foresight and guidance on one of the greatest threats to the Great Lakes, and urge the states to immediately implement and evaluate actions necessary to address nutrient runoff problems,” Mr. Olson said. “The call for a public trust framework recognizes a benchmark adopted by the courts of all eight Great Lakes states and Ontario. This benchmark means governments must act. They have an affirmative duty.”

In its report, the IJC said the governments of the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario “should apply a public trust framework consisting of a set of important common law legal principles shared by both countries.”

University of Michigan researchers who generated data for the commission’s report said the region should strive to cut nutrient pollution by nearly half in the coming years. Ohio’s phosphorus task force made a similar recommendation in the fall.

“The new target is very ambitious, but is achievable if the region agrees to adopt agricultural practices that help reduce the amount of phosphorus-bearing fertilizer washing off fields,” Don Scavia, an aquatic biologist who serves as director of UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute, said.

Without a strong commitment to reducing phosphorus and other nutrients, Lake Erie’s algae problem will worsen as the effects of climate change become more acute, researchers said.

“Potential impacts of climate change need to be taken into consideration for effective action,” team member Nathan Bosch of Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., said.

Climate warming “can cause preferred habitat to be squeezed both from above by warmer temperatures and from below via increase [algae],” another team member, Tomas Hook of Purdue University, said.

The researchers collaborated on a multi-institution project called EcoFore-Lake Erie. The findings have been accepted for publication in an edition of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.

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