International Joint Commission Releases Recommendations to Protect Lake Erie, Prevent Algal Blooms


The International Joint Commission today released the report, A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms.  The report 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 recorded.

"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 research.

"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."

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 and research.


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. 


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, biosolids 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.


Restoring Wetlands

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 nongovernment 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.


Next Steps

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.