IJC Commissioner Gordon Walker from St. Thomas
There was light turnout at the Port Stanley Arena on September 25, 2013 for the
public input meeting on the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) Draft Report, but
one member of the Sierra Club had travelled from Niagara Falls to attend this meeting,
as had a farmer from Alvinston and one from Wallacetown.
The International Joint Commission was given a very specific mandate and a very
narrow scope as regards this priority. It was to identify the causes of the massive
(2,000 square miles) harmful algal blooms in Western Lake Erie in 2011 and determine
ways to fix the problem. In the pictures the water looked like it had a thick, bright
green carpet on top of it, much thicker than spilled oil, and rolling green waves.
The water underneath, to a depth where fish travel, was also quite murky green.
Copies of the full 70 page report, as well as copies of the executive summary of
the report, were available for the public.
Having successfully cleaned up Lake Erie in the 1960's by reducing phosphorus loading
by some 14,000 metric tons by upgrading sewage treatment plants and banning phosphorous
in detergents, the IJC was given the directive to find a way to repeat that success.
The type of algal blooms experienced in 2011 in the Western Lake Erie Basin remove
the dissolved oxygen in the water, making the area toxic. The primary culprit identified
this time is dissolved reactive phosphorous in the water coming predominantly from
farm run off on the American side of the lake. Untreated sewage overflow from plants
with combined sewage and storm water systems that overflow in heavy rains also plays
Climate change compounds the effect. Macro pours in no-till fields, where the water
is running off quickly instead of seeping into the ground, and storm sewers conduct
water very fast when the water is free flowing. Extreme weather with heavy rains
deluging massive amounts of water in short periods of time will carry off the surface
into the streams and lake everything that's in the path of that water. Most of the
dissolved reactive phosphorous loading occurs between March and the end of June.
The report is recommending regulatory changes to farming best practices, including
scratching up the top inch or so of the soil so that the rain will seep into the
ground, and prohibiting the spreading of manure or bisolids when the ground is frozen
or snow covered.
The report does not mention riparian buffer zones or reforestation as a solution
to the problem, as Dr. John Bacher of the Sierra Club Niagara pointed out. The Maumee
watershed in Ohio has on 3-5% forest cover. The Maumee River contributes only 5%
of Lake Erie's water, but it contributes half of its phosphorous loadings. Until
the arrival of Europeans, the Maumee basin was primarily a forested swamp wetland
- the Great Black Swamp.
"In the LEEP report there is no mention of trees, riparian cover, tree canopy or
forests anywhere in the report," said Bacher. "In terms of a major lake that was
once, in natural habitat, predominantly forest, Lake Erie's watershed could well
be one of the most severely man modified environments in the world. If we are to
even crawl towards better ecosystem health in the watershed, this basic reality
should be appreciated."
The farmers in the audience were concerned with how they were now to be regulated,
given that most of these measures are in place in Ontario already and the maps show
the loading was not significantly coming from Ontario. The report carries suggestions
of tying farming best practices to crop insurance. As well, it was pointed out that
land in forest cover is non-income producing land for the farmer. It is difficult
and expensive to reforest and manage. The farmer from Alvinston said he was not
against keeping the forest cover he has on his farm, but he needed either money
or physical help to look after it. The cost to the farmer of looking after land
not in product has probably never been considered either by the scientist studying
the problem and looking for solutions, or by society at large as they push for maintenance
of woodlots and reforestation and the creation of riparian buffer zones and wetlands.
Lake Erie Ecosystem
Priority Draft Report
The public has until October 5, 2013 to submit comments on the report.