Great Lakes Leaders Agree to Phosphorus Reductions

On June 13, the governors of Michigan and Ohio and the premier of Ontario signed an agreement to reduce phosphorus inputs to the western waters of Lake Erie by 40% over the next 10 years, with an interim goal of a 20% reduction by 2020. Phosphorus is a key nutrient that has led to algal blooms that have plagued the western basin sporadically for several years, affecting tourism and fishing and leading to public health warnings.

As part of the agreement, Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario will develop a plan outlining their proposed specific actions and timelines toward achieving the phosphorus reduction goal.

The agreement was informed by a nine-part interim joint action plan for nutrient reduction produced by the Lake Erie Nutrient Targets (LENT) Working Group, which is part of the Great Lakes Commission. The LENT group includes representatives from the four states bordering Lake Erie ― Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York ― and the province of Ontario and was convened in response to the Toledo, Ohio drinking water crisis in August 2014.

The LENT plan calls for a 40% reduction in phosphorus into the western and central Lake Erie basins from 2008 levels by 2025. The 40% reduction target was recommended by the Ohio Task Force in 2012, the International Joint Commission in 2013, and by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The reduction target and the nine parts are designed to help protect Lake Erie from harmful algal blooms, toxic cyanobacteria, anoxic zones, and other problems caused by excessive phosphorus loadings. The working group will prepare a final report this fall. For now, the steps in the interim joint action plan address:

  • application of fertilizer and manure on frozen and snow-covered ground,
  • comprehensive management approaches, such as the 4R’s Nutrient Stewardship Certification program, which encourages farmers to apply the right fertilizer source at the right rate at the right time in the right place,
  • discharges of phosphorus from 7 key water resource recovery facilities in the western and central basin,
  • investments in green infrastructure for urban stormwater and agricultural runoff,
  • open-water disposal of dredged material,
  • performance-based incentives to reduce nutrients,
  • residential phosphorus fertilizer,
  • adaptive management to validate and refine reduction targets and timelines, and
  • collaboration toward an integrated monitoring and modeling network.

The announcement by state and provincial leaders comes as Canada and the United States continue a multi-year process to reassess nutrient targets for Lake Erie under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now seeking public input on proposed phosphorus reduction targets for Lake Erie. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement requires the United States and Canada to adopt targets to reduce excess phosphorus levels for Lake Erie by early 2016.

In 2013, a binational workgroup was convened to develop recommended phosphorus reduction targets for Lake Erie. The workgroup included representatives from federal, state, and provincial environmental and agricultural agencies, as well as academic experts and members of nongovernmental organizations. The workgroup called for a 40% reduction in:

  • total phosphorus entering the Western Basin and Central Basin of Lake Erie from the U.S. and Canada,
  • spring total- and soluble-reactive phosphorus loads from the Maumee River; and
  • spring total- and soluble-reactive phosphorus loads from watersheds where localized algae is a problem, including the Thames River and Leamington Tributaries in Canada and the River Raisin, Portage River, Sandusky River, Huron River, Maumee River, and Toussaint Creek in the U.S.

Canada and the U.S. plan to finalize targets in February 2016.

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