International Joint Commission (IJC)
More than a century of cooperation protecting shared waters

Commission Seeks Public Comment on Draft Lake Erie Report

2013/08/29

Report Provides Advice to Governments to Reduce Nutrient Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms

[Windsor, ON] – The International Joint Commission today released for public comment the draft report:  Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority:  Scientific Findings and Policy Recommendations to Reduce Nutrient Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms.  The draft report reflects more than a year of work that brought together scientists from Canada and the United States to examine lake-wide changes related to phosphorous enrichment from both urban and rural sources, compounded by climate change and aquatic invasive species.  The public is invited to comment online and also at a series of open houses and public meetings. The closing date for public comments is Oct. 5. 

"The United States and Canada worked together to restore Lake Erie in the 1970s and 80s and their success was an historic binational achievement," said Joe Comuzzi, Canadian chair of the IJC. "Our goal is for this report to help governments address the new challenges facing Lake Erie and make history again."

"Common farming practices and also old sewer systems and climate are contributing to Lake Erie’s current problems," said Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the IJC.  "Our advice to governments pulls no punches because the science indicates that without major changes, especially in farming practices, we won’t see any substantial improvement in Lake Erie’s health."

Following the record algal bloom on Lake Erie of nearly 2,000 square miles (more than 5000 square kilometers) in 2011, the Commission launched the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority, setting as a goal the measurable reduction of phosphorous loads and harmful algal blooms.  To address the challenge, dozens of scientists from both countries were brought together to examine scientific, socio-economic and regulatory themes as part of a comprehensive approach.  In addition, the public was engaged throughout the process to solicit their views and ideas.

The complete report can be reviewed at here. A few key highlights are:

  • Current phosphorous loads to Lake Erie are largely from non-point sources.
  • Run-off from agricultural sources such as fertilizer and animal waste are a major non-point source of phosphorous.
  • There are "hotspots" that contribute a disproportionate share of dissolved reactive phosphorous (DRP) that is more bioavailable for supporting algal growth.  The single biggest source of DRP is the Maumee River.
  • Because of the intense storms related to climate change, future nutrient loading, coupled with warmer temperatures, could lead to increased severity and frequency of algal blooms.  Climate change may also contribute to increasing hypoxia (dead zones) in the central basin of Lake Erie.
  • In the western basin of Lake Erie, types of algae known as Microcystis and Anabaena both can secrete toxins that kill wildlife and pose a risk to human health.
  • Phosphorous monitoring is inadequate, especially with regard to wet weather events as well as the share of phosphorous loading to Lake Erie contributed by the Detroit River.

With respect to action, the Commission made 15 specific recommendations directed toward federal, state and provincial governments.  These include:

  • To reduce the severity and extent of harmful algal blooms to acceptable levels, governments should set total phosphorous load targets for the Maumee River and the western basin of Lake Erie that are roughly 40 percent below the average loads for the past five years.
  • To reduce the hypoxic area by half, the DRP load should be reduced by more than 75 percent compared to the average.
  • All jurisdictions in the Lake Erie basin should ban the application of manure and biosolids from agricultural operations on frozen or ground covered by snow.
  • All jurisdictions in the Great Lakes basin should prohibit the use of P fertilizers for lawn care with strictly limited exceptions.
  • Future management efforts should focus on reducing the phosphorous load delivered during the spring period and be focused primarily on those subwatersheds that are delivering the most phosphorous into the lake.
  • Existing and planned incentive based programs should immediately shift to a preference for Best Management Practices that are most likely to reduce DRP.
  • The U.S. & Canadian governments should strengthen and increase the use of regulatory mechanisms of conservation farm planning, with nutrient management as a primary emphasis, in balance with the economic viability of the sector.
  • U.S. and Canadian federal policy should link the cost and availability of crop insurance purchases or premiums to farm conservation planning and implementation of nutrient management practices.
  • Governments should commit sustained funding for enhancing and maintaining monitoring networks, especially a water quality monitoring system at the outlet of the Detroit River and monitoring during wet weather events.

With the publication of the draft report, the Commission is now receiving public comments online and also at public meetings in both Canada and the U.S.  The report will be highlighted at a panel discussion on Sept. 10 at the Commission’s Great Lakes Triennial Meeting in Milwaukee as part of Great Lakes Week.  Click here for more information about public meeting locations and times.  Following a 45-day public comment period ending Oct. 5, the draft report will be revised and submitted to the governments later this year.