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Canada, US Set Lake Erie Algae Reduction Targets: What Happens Next?

IJC admin | 2016/03/15

By IJC staff

Canadian and U.S. government agencies, and the IJC, are on the same page when it comes to phosphorus reduction targets needed to restore Lake Erie.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced targets of 40 percent on Feb. 22. They say the targets, if achieved, will “maintain algae growth at a level consistent with healthy aquatic ecosystems; and maintain algae biomass at levels that do not produce toxins that pose a threat to human or ecosystem health.”

McCarthy called the targets “the first step in our urgent work together to protect Lake Erie.” McKenna said: “Canada recognizes the urgency and magnitude of the threat to Lake Erie water quality.”

Waves on Lake Erie. Credit: Michael S
Waves on Lake Erie. Credit: Michael S

Western Lake Erie had its worst algal bloom ever in the summer of 2015. A bloom in August 2014 contaminated the drinking water supplies of Toledo, Ohio, and Pelee Island in Ontario, leading to “do not drink” advisories.

Sources of phosphorus loadings to western Lake Erie include municipal sewage treatment plants and urban stormwater runoff, but phosphorus runoff from fertilizer applied to agricultural fields and from animal waste is the leading contributor.

Runoff during a storm. Credit: Gary O’Dell
Runoff during a storm. Credit: Gary O’Dell

The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Protocol committed the two federal governments to develop the targets. Now that they’re adopted, the Protocol commits them to develop domestic action plans to achieve the targets by February 2018. The plans will include an assessment of environmental conditions, identification of priorities for binational research and monitoring, and priority measures to manage phosphorous loadings.

In a February 2014 report on its Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP), the IJC recommended comparable targets: a 37 percent reduction in total phosphorus entering Lake Erie from the Maumee River in the spring and a 41 percent reduction in soluble reactive phosphorus from the Maumee in the spring. The IJC targets grew out of a scientific review and workshop.

The governments’ targets, which will be measured by reductions from 2008 levels, followed science and public consultation processes. Modeling experts from Canada and the U.S. used nine different computer simulation models to correlate changes in phosphorus levels with levels of algal growth in order to determine phosphorus load reduction targets.

A binational public consultation on the targets was held in 2015 between June 30 and Aug. 31. Public support for the draft targets and the target setting process contributed to the adoption of the final targets.

The governments of Ontario, Ohio and Michigan have also committed to a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus loadings, announcing an agreement in June 2015 to achieve the reduction in total and dissolved reactive phosphorus entering Lake Erie’s Western Basin by the year 2025, with an interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020.

The Great Lakes Commission’s Lake Erie Nutrients Targets Working Group in June 2015 also called for a 40 percent reduction in loadings of phosphorus from 2008 levels by 2025, with an interim reduction target of 20 percent by 2020. Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York State were represented on the working group.

Achieving the 40 percent reduction targets will be challenging. All sectors of society, not simply the agricultural community, will have to play a role. A changing climate with more variable rainfall, intense spring storms and warming water temperatures will complicate achievement of the reductions. And in addition to incentives for voluntary reductions, IJC’s 2014 LEEP report called for strengthened standards in law and rules to require reductions.

Lake Erie is a world class fishery, the source of drinking water for millions of people, and offers unparalleled recreational opportunities but harmful algal blooms hurt people and the economy. The good news is that by working together, excessive nutrient pollution can be reduced. Achieving the pollution reduction requires bold action and fundamental shifts from the status quo.

From a Lake Erie Harmful Algal Blooms Public Forum held in November 2014 in Leamington, Ontario.
From a Lake Erie Harmful Algal Blooms Public Forum held in November 2014 in Leamington, Ontario.

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