Yesterday the International Joint Commission released its newest report showing
Lake Erie is once again a lake in serious trouble. The lake, once an environmental
cleanup "poster boy" when the USA and Canada took steps to clean up the particulate
phosphate loading in the 1970's, in 2011 had the largest concentration of algal
blooms ever reported and which could be seen from space, and this time the cause
is dissolved phosphorous Don Scavia from the University of Michigan explained yesterday
in a conference call with the IJC, their scientists and the media.
The International Joint Commission report,
A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms,
provides scientific and policy advice to governments as they implement plans to
respond to deteriorating Lake Erie water quality. The IJC made Lake Erie a priority
area of attention in response to an algal bloom in 2011 that was the largest ever
"The public has told us, and research has confirmed, that Lake Erie is impaired
by an excess of nutrients that feed harmful algae," said Lana Pollack, U.S. chair
of the IJC. "We commend the U.S. and Canada for their work and investments to help
Lake Erie, but it's time for governments at all levels to put the lake on a diet
by setting targets and achieving real reductions in nutrient loads."
Based on the research of dozens of scientists from both sides of the border, the
IJC found that water quality has declined over the past decade, with impacts on
ecosystem health, drinking water supplies, fisheries, recreation, tourism and property
values. More than 400 people attended public meetings after a draft report was released
in August 2013 and today's final report reflects more than 130 comments and additional
The impact on drinking water drawn from Lake Erie is of significant concern to the
millions of people on both sides of the lake that rely on it. Francie Dennison of
Port Stanley News.com asked them exactly what the threat these algal blooms pose
to our drinking water. Glen Benoy, Senior Water Quality Advisor to the IJC explained
that cyanobacterial blooms produce microsyspin toxin, and not all water intake plants
monitor for this toxin. Most of the algal blooms that occur in the Western Basin are
of the cyanobacterial type. There are different types of algal blooms in the Central
and Easter Basins of the lake.
"I grew up on Lake Erie and know firsthand that this precious lake can't afford
more fouled beaches, dead fish and contaminated drinking water," said Gordon Walker,
Canadian chair. "Government action saved Lake Erie in the 1970s and the IJC is confident
that with timely action, the U.S. and Canada can save Lake Erie again."
The vast majority of the dissolved phosphorus loading is coming from farm runoff
into the Maumee and Sandusky Rivers, primarily from massive factory farms that produce
an overwhelming amount of manure, especially in the winter time. Spreading bio solids
on frozen and/or snow covered ground means it simply runs off into the rivers and
is carried untreated downstream to the lake as dissolved phosphorous. Alan Pollock,
US Chair of the IJC, said the proper disposal of these bio solids must be part of
the farming business plan, despite changing climate conditions and wetter fields
She said that bio solids spread on frozen ground was the key issue raised by members
of the public whose livelihood depends on tourism and recreation around the lake.
That problem is not just an American one. One of Port Stanley News.com's readers
reported they have smelled the rank smell from manure spread on frozen fields on
more than one occasion this winter as they were driving down Hwy 401 past Woodstock.
That said, when asked about resistance to regulatory and non-regulatory changes
to correct this problem, Pollock said most of the farmers are on-board with cleaning
up the lake and ready to do their part.
The other part of the problem is dissolved phosphorous making its way into tributary
rivers that feed Lake Erie, all around the lake, from lawn fertilizer. Most storm
sewers in urban centres do no treat the water they release into places like the
Thames River. Taken in total, the urban impact on the lake from this problem is
also significant. At page 59 of the 100 page report, Scott's Miracle Grow company
took the phosphorous out of its fertilizer and is still having great success.
To improve Lake Erie water quality once again, the IJC makes 16 specific recommendations
to assist governments at all levels in setting phosphorus reduction targets, reducing
phosphorus loads from both agricultural and urban sources, and strengthening monitoring
Setting Loading Targets
In the report, the IJC finds that current knowledge is sufficient to justify immediate
additional effort to reduce external loading of nutrients to Lake Erie. In particular,
the IJC highlights dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) as a primary concern and
focuses on the Maumee River watershed as the highest priority for remedial action,
recommending a 37 percent reduction for the spring period (March-June) compared
to the 2007-2012 average. To help achieve loading targets, the IJC recommends that
Ohio and Michigan formally place western Lake Erie on an impaired waters list, triggering
a phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the western Lake Erie Basin
that would also include Indiana and be overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency. The IJC also recommends that a plan using both regulatory and non-regulatory
measures be used to reduce loadings from Ontario watersheds.
The table of specific targets can be seen at page 45 of the report.
Addressing Agricultural Sources
The IJC concludes that the major phosphorus loadings to Lake Erie are from non-point
sources, especially agricultural operations. To address this complex challenge,
the IJC recommends that governments throughout the watershed refocus agri-environmental
management programs to explicitly address DRP. This includes an emphasis on best
management practices (BMPs) most likely to reduce DRP, such as improving the rate,
timing, location and form of phosphorus applied to fields, and reducing runoff from
those fields. Such nutrient management initiatives should focus on reducing the
load delivered during the spring period and on priority sub-watersheds that are
delivering the most phosphorus to the lake. The IJC also recommends that governments
increase the scale and intensity of BMP programs that have been shown to reduce
nutrient runoff, while strengthening and increasing the use of regulatory mechanisms
including linking crop insurance with conservation performance. And to address a
concern raised repeatedly by the public regarding the health of Lake Erie, the Commission
recommends that Ontario, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana s ban
the application of manure, bio solids and commercial fertilizer containing phosphorus
on frozen ground or ground covered by snow.
Addressing Urban Sources
The IJC recommends that federal, state and provincial governments work with municipalities
to accelerate the use of "green infrastructure" in urban stormwater management.
This could be accomplished through regulatory direction and technical support to
municipalities to support projects that are an alternative to more expensive stormwater
controls. In addition, the IJC recommends that Ontario, Ohio and Pennsylvania prohibit
the sale and use of phosphorus fertilizers for lawn care, with the exception of
the establishment of new lawns during the first growing season or in cases where
soil testing indicates a need for phosphorus.
The report notes Lake Erie has lost more than 80% of its pre-settlement coastal
wetlands, significantly affecting water quality as well as habitat. Recognizing
the fact that these wetlands both support biodiversity and filter pollutants, the
IJC recommends that federal, state and provincial governments, in concert with non-government
partners, commit to and fund a goal of a 10% increase, or 1000 hectares (2600 acres),
beyond current levels in coastal wetland areas in the western basin of Lake Erie
by 2030, while setting a science-based goal for protection of wetlands inland of
the coastal zone.
Strengthening Monitoring and Research
In the report, the Commission identified a number of significant knowledge gaps
that need to be filled so that governments have adequate information to make decisions.
Therefore, the Commission recommends enhancing monitoring networks throughout the
Lake Erie basin, including establishment of a monitoring system at the outlet of
the Detroit River that measures critical nutrient parameters. Further research was
also recommended to improve understanding of the cumulative effectiveness of both
rural and urban BMPs.
The IJC has forwarded the report to the U.S. and Canadian governments. Several topics
identified during preparation of the report - including human health effects of
toxic algae, computer models to predict the export of nutrients to the lake, and
the economic impacts of algae blooms - will be investigated in 2014 and 2015. Under
the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the LEEP report will help inform IJC's
overall assessment of government progress in cleaning up the Great Lakes.