Friday, February 28, 2014

Environmentalists say plan is needed to arrest nutrient loading into Lake Erie

A joint United States-Canada agency is seeking to convince both Ohio and Michigan to grow some teeth in order to help take a bite of caustic algae blooms that have plagued Lake Erie the past several summers.

What the International Joint Commission did was release Feb. 27 a report calling on the two states' governments to “declare the waters of the western Lake Erie basin impaired from nutrient pollution.”

With the awkwardly worded title “A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorous Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms” does not make for light reading.

Important to be sure, but not something one would sit in a recliner and pore over with the enthusiasm of a spy novel.

Even so, the document is essential in stating not only what is wrong with Lake Erie water quality today but even more vital, how to fix the problem by highlighting 16 recommendations.

And such a declaration, agrees a number of environmental and conservation groups, would thus trigger what is called a Total Daily Maximum Load protocol, or more commonly known as a TMDL. This scientifically based yardstick would then quantify just how much nutrients are allowed to enter Lake Erie's Western Basin.

Much of what has precipitated such urgency, the Commission, environmentalists and a growing chorus of elected officials acknowledge, began in 2011. That is when a massive and dangerous algal bloom swarmed across the waters of Lake Erie from Monroe, Michigan in the west clear to Cleveland in the east.

So bad was this explosion of toxic goo that it was 1,000 times more potent than what the World Health Organization recommends for recreational contact.

And much of that bloom came about by algae feeding on nutrients (read, fertilizers and such) washed from farmland into Lake Erie tributaries.

A second prong – and perhaps the most challenging to accomplish in the long-term - would consist of developing a reduction plan to throttle back on nutrient loading with the target goal of achieving or exceeding established clean-water standards.

“So much is at stake, from our economy to human health,” says Kristy Meyer, the Ohio Environmental Council's managing director of Agriculture, Health and Clean Water Programs.

Asked then if any adopted TMDL likely would include both fang and claw, Meyer says “yes and no.”

“A TMDL would set limits and then when a new or existing permit for point-sources or confined animal feeding operations come up for renewal, new limits would be inserted into their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System documentation,” Meyers says.

As such this account would also establish recommendations for other sources of pollution as well, and which are not covered by NPDDES requirements, Meyers said.

“Those recommendations could then be turned into laws and rules, or those responsible for manufacturing these sources could see the handwriting on the wall and voluntarily participate,” she said.

Then too participating cooperators could apply pressure on those who are not doing their part or on those operations and operators who remain unregulated.

New or emerging anti-pollution technologies may yet arrive also as science, industry and governments strategize on ways to limit nutrient loading from farm to watersheds and ultimately into Lake Erie, Meyers, opined.

“I imagine that is how water-quality trading started, but I'm not 100-percent certain,” Meyers says.

Consequently, should research, elbow grease and a coming-together of like minds point the way to a source of nutrient activity then the money would almost certainly follow this trail, Meyers says.

“Federal and state agencies as well as other entities could spend their funds working with folks to install the best management practices on agricultural land; reduce storm-water run-off through green infrastructure and other means,” Meyers says. “And efforts could be directed toward expanding, building or refurbishing waste-water infrastructure.”

The thing is, says Sandy Bihn, executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper group, the region's stakeholders need to work collectively on a problem that stubbornly resists a unilateral response by any one entity.

“A Western Basin TMDL would require consideration of the Lake Erie waters in Ohio as well as Michigan along with cooperation from Ontario,” Bihn says.

Simply put, Meyers concluded the stakes are too high in allowing the status quo to manipulate Lake Erie's water quality via toxic and avoidable – as well as costly – nutrient loading.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada have a duty; a responsibility, to develop a TMDL or a TMDL-like plan that is geared toward nutrient reduction,” Meyers says. “And they must also ensure that the states and provinces are implementing such a plan.”

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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