Last fall, nine Lake Erie experts identified specific strategies that they viewed as most important to reducing phosphorus runoff and preventing harmful algal blooms in the lake’s western basin. As of early June, Ohio legislators were moving toward passage of a bill backing those scientists’ findings with state dollars.
“That was the blueprint — use those evidence-based strategies and then target the funds to critical areas in the sub-watersheds [of the western basin],” says Rep. Steven Arndt. Ohio admittedly has a long way to go to reach its target — a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus loads by 2025. That is the amount specified in binational agreements between the United States and Canada and among the governments of Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.
In May and late June, heavy rains fell on the Maumee River, which begins in Fort Wayne in Indiana, runs through agricultural areas in northeast Ohio, and eventually flows into Lake Erie in Toledo. The river, scientists say, has high concentrations of phosphorus, and with all of the spring and summer precipitation, those nutrients discharged into the smallest of the five Great Lakes.
The end result: One of the worst observable algal blooms in Lake Erie. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only the years 2011, 2013 and 2015 had more severe blooms. The federal agency’s findings were the latest reminder of the “poor” and “deteriorating” health of Lake Erie (see table), and of the importance of states and the province of Ontario reaching their agreed-upon goal: reduce nutrient runoff into the lake by 40 percent by 2025.
Though it likely won’t change much of the work already under way to protect western Lake Erie from excessive algal blooms, Michigan’s recent designation of its part of the watershed as “impaired” signals the importance of reaching new binational goals to control phosphorus runoff.
Every two years, as part of compliance with the Clean Water Act, all states must determine which of their water bodies are polluted and/or don’t meet water quality standards. They then submit their impairment list to the U.S. Environmental Protection. The new designation for western Lake Erie is due to the presence of extensive algal blooms and their harmful impact on aquatic life and other wildlife, Michigan environmental officials say. The blooms are the result of excessive levels of phosphorus.