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States play significant role in Lake Erie phosphorus reduction

Canada and U.S. EPA announce phosphorus reduction targets of 40%, with states determining action plans.

States will have a greater say in how to reduce phosphorus levels in the Great Lakes — unlike the top-down approach the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking to control nutrient levels in the Chesapeake Bay.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Canada’s environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna announced that Canada and the U.S. have adopted targets to reduce phosphorus entering affected areas of Lake Erie by 40%. The targets announced will minimize the extent of low-oxygen “dead zones” in the central basin of Lake Erie, 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.

Through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Canada and the U.S. committed in 2012 to combat the growing threat of toxic and nuisance algae development in Lake Erie and agreed to develop updated binational phosphorus reduction targets for Lake Erie by February 2016. The 40% reduction targets announced Feb. 22 are based on 2008 loading levels. Canada and the U.S. have committed to developing domestic action plans, by no later than February 2018, to help meet the new targets.

McCarthy said, “The first step in our urgent work together to protect Lake Erie from toxic algae, harmful algal blooms and other effects of nutrient runoff is to establish these important phosphorus limits, but establishing these targets is not the end of our work together. We are already taking action to meet them.”

Larry Antosch, senior director for policy development and environmental policy at the Ohio Farm Bureau, said each of the Great Lakes states – Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York – will now have to develop domestic action plans on how they’re going to reduce their share of the phosphorus levels.

“Once targets are established, states would then look at how to allocate that load or reduction between the sources within the state,” he explained.  

The process is very different from the total maximum daily load limits set by EPA for the Chesapeake Bay, Antosch said, as it gives the states the ability to identify action strategies and determine what different sectors can do to address the issue. He expects agriculture to be involved in those discussions.

Ohio agricultural commodity groups have already begun to lay the groundwork for collaborative efforts to reduce nutrient runoff with work on the water quality nutrient challenge over the past five to seven years. Other states have started similar efforts.

“We know that we have a role to play in this challenge that we have before us,” he said. “We just hope that all the other sources are also taking that same position and playing the same role in identifying what they can do to address the issue.”

Antosch noted that similar efforts were started in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reduce nutrient loads entering the lakes. Farmers were implementing conservation tillage, buffer strips and waterways to reduce erosion and keep soil and attached phosphorus in the fields. However, since the mid-1990s, the amount of dissolved phosphorus leaving the landscape has increased, which has led to harmful algae blooms, Antosch said.

Algae occur naturally in freshwater systems. They are essential to the aquatic food web and healthy ecosystems. However, too much algae, linked to high amounts of phosphorus, can lead to conditions that can harm human health and the environment. Since the 1990s, Lake Erie has seen an increase in algal growth that has compromised water quality and threatens the Lake Erie region’s recreation-intensive economy, EPA said.

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