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Report

There is growing understanding of what is causing harmful algae blooms and a dead zone in Lake Erie, and growing consensus on strategies that can address those causes. In a full-day meeting of the TMACOG Environmental Council on January 22, more than 140 people came to hear a wide range of speakers and talk together about next steps.

The Lake Erie blue-green algae that produce microcystis toxin affects people in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, who use the resource for recreation, business and public water supply. Last summer’s “do not drink” advisory from the City of Toledo impacted 400,000 residents and many businesses. Chuck Campbell and Andy McClure of the City of Toledo discussed actions to assure that the public will have a safe water supply. They described Toledo’s treatment process, operational changes, and infrastructure improvements that have been or will be made. The city will perform a long-term evaluation of its treatment facility using a Blue Ribbon Panel of national experts.

The audience included commercial fishermen, soil and water scientists, water treatment professionals, agencies representing U.S. and Canadian cooperation, and elected officials including Ohio State Senator Randy Gardner and representatives from Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur’s office and Senator Sherrod Brown’s office.

Sources
The National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University has assembled important data from its 16 automated water testing stations. Their data, presented by Laura Johnson, shows that for all of the watersheds monitored phosphorus decreased from the 1970s to early 1990s. In largely agricultural watersheds, the amount of dissolved reactive phosphorus began to grow in the 1990s and has shown a rising trend since. Research shows that point source pollution (from treatment plants and business and industry) has been controlled, but non-point (agricultural, septic systems, stormwater) has risen. A study that links weather to harmful algae blooms concludes that phosphorus loading in the spring - mostly from spring storms - drives the blooms. While questions about how phosphorus moves through soil and how it behaves in the lake water remain, it is clear that agricultural practices are one contribution to harmful algal blooms. In good news, data shows that the lake reacts quickly to changes in the amount of phosphorus. Improvement can happen rapidly when the right steps are taken to control phosphorus.

Solutions
As the water crisis came to the public’s attention, many people grasped for a “silver bullet” to clean up Lake Erie by addressing one particular source of phosphorus as the primary cause. Speakers presented evidence that protecting our Lake Erie water supply will require “golden buckshot” instead — effective action addressing many sources.

A presentation from Dereth Glance, Commissioner with the International Joint Commission, concurred on the data and recommended solutions:

Expand best management practices including avoiding autumn application of fertilizer
Ban application of manure and biosolids on frozen land
Restore coastal wetlands
Provide incentives to farmers by linking crop insurance to farm conservation of nutrient programs
In urban areas, use green infrastructure to manage stormwater, and ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer

Steve Davis of U.S. Department of Agriculture described agricultural conservation practices to reduce phosphorus loadings. He advocated the “4R” program: to apply the right amount of fertilizer in the time place, at the right time, and in the right form. Elizabeth Wick of Ohio EPA described regulatory programs that have greatly reduced phosphorus from municipal sewage treatment plants, package sewage treatment plants, septic systems, combined sewer overflows, and stormwater. Future regulatory changes are likely to cut phosphorus loads further.

Katie Rousseau of American Rivers gave an overview of green infrastructure and how it recaptures phosphorus from stormwater. Steve Day of the City of Toledo and Frank Lopez of the Old Woman Creek Reserve presented case studies. Green Infrastructure describes strategies to collect urban runoff and treat it naturally by mimicking the natural system. Green roofs, bioretention, engineered soils, grading, and thoughtful planting are examples of systems that have been shown to be effective at treating water and improving habitat for people and for other animals. They pointed out that the natural systems still require some maintenance and various strategies need to be carefully integrated.

Much more information was presented. All presentations from the January 22 meeting are posted on the environmental planning pages of www.tmacog.org. See the TMACOG calendar for regular meetings of the TMACOG Environmental Council.


 

 


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