Algal bloom prediction proves governments must improve their nutrient pollution plans

Thursday morning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its partners released the 2020 Seasonal Forecast of Harmful Algal Blooms for Lake Erie

NOAA predicted a moderate bloom severity of 4.5 out of 10 that could possibly reach 5.5. An index of 5 indicates severe algal blooms. In 2015, the governors of Ohio and Michigan, along with the premier of Ontario, set a public goal of reducing nutrient pollution by 40% by 2025, with 2020 as a halfway interim goal of 20%.

In response to today’s report, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Freshwater Future, Michigan Environmental Council, and Ohio Environmental Council are calling on the governors and the premier to improve domestic action plans to provide a blueprint, not just a long list of best management practices, that the public can use to hold decision-makers accountable.

“Regardless of whether the severity is measured as a 6 or 7.5, when the algal blooms in western Lake Erie can be seen from space, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that this is becoming a crisis,” said Crystal M.C. Davis, director of policy and strategic engagement at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Efforts are not only falling short, we also don’t have a clear accounting of how or where we are in reaching the 20% reduction goal or how we will get to the 40% reduction goal. Lists of best management practices are nice, but leaders need to provide an accounting of progress and a plan of action so the public knows where things stand and how their money is being spent. The future of Lake Erie and our communities rely on it.”

Among the waterways in the Great Lakes region, western Lake Erie in particular has been plagued by an increase of algal blooms over the past decade. The toxins created pose serious health risks to humans, animals, the environment and Lake Erie’s more than $15 billion economy that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. Some 12 million peoples’ drinking water quality and rates are also impacted by blooms, a particular concern as the COVID-19 crisis deepens.

“Rural and urban communities' drinking water rates are rising as a result of having to treat harmful algal blooms,” said Kristy Meyer, associate director at Freshwater Future. “Rising water rates are causing people to make hard decisions between food on the table and tap water to drink and wash hands, something that is essential for public health. It is time community members impacted have a seat at the table to ensure comprehensive equitable solutions are being crafted as the region works to reduce harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.”

Scientists believe that reducing the amount of runoff pollution will significantly reduce Lake Erie algal blooms and improve the lake’s health. Unfortunately, few rules are in place to limit agricultural nutrient runoff, which remains the major contributor of harmful algal blooms.

“We understand that achieving the benchmarks is aspirational and difficult, but state leaders have clearly failed to meet the targets they voluntarily outlined years ago,” said Tom Zimnicki, program director of surface water, groundwater and agriculture at Michigan Environmental Council. “We are especially concerned since the plans and strategies outlined  by state and provincial agencies double down on the same status quo methods that have led us to this point. Moving forward, state and provincial administrations owe it to residents and taxpayers to develop programs with real accountability and metrics to ensure water quality objectives are met. Otherwise, we will be writing this same statement in five years.”

Michigan’s Lake Erie Adaptive Management Plan is updated every five years to address nutrient pollution, and the state is finalizing its latest iteration this year. MEC and other groups sent comments to the state this spring, outlining plans with novel, direct actions instead of voluntary commitments and continual testing.

Neighboring Ohio has its own plans.

“Harmful algal blooms continue to put Lake Erie and Ohio waterways at risk and threaten the quality and safety of our drinking water. We know that there is not one simple solution to address this critical, complex issue,” said Pete Bucher, managing director of water policy at Ohio Environmental Council. “Ohio’s updated Domestic Action Plan and the H2Ohio program are important investments to improve Lake Erie water quality. We are committed to continuing to work with the DeWine administration and stakeholders to ensure these plans are sustainable, include accountability measures and involve diverse public engagement in order to achieve quantifiable water quality improvements.” 


RELATED: MEC's suggestions for a better Lake Erie nutrient pollution plan