Another Lackluster Plan Won’t Fix Lake Erie
In early December, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and leaders from departments of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), Nature Resources (DNR), and Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) announced an adaptive management plan to tackle harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.
The proposed adaptive management plan serves as a companion document to the state’s existing Domestic Action Plan (DAP).
When the DAP was proposed in 2017, the Michigan Environmental Council advocated for improvements to the plan, and made note of the issues around the significant reliance on voluntary agricultural programs and lack of a robust data system to measure progress.
Megan Tinsley, water and agriculture policy manager for the Environmental Council, notes that in the face of climate change and forecasted trends of increased precipitation that are predicted to make toxic algal blooms worse, any plan to address the problem should be bold in the solutions it puts forward.
“We experience massive toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie year after year, and researchers continually conclude agriculture is a primary contributor of pollution to the lake,” said Tinsley. “Yet our state government continues to prioritize failed policies that don’t result in real reductions to agricultural runoff pollution. We need an effective strategy to curb the damage that unsustainable agricultural practices inflict on our fresh water and this plan fails to deliver that."
Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Environmental Council, views the administration’s plan as contradictory to Governor Whitmer’s insistence that protecting Michigan’s Great Lakes is a top priority.
“Pollution from agriculture in Lake Erie is the single most visible threat to any of the Great Lakes. The Whitmer administration’s Lake Erie plan flies in the face of their claim that they prioritize clean water, continuing the Snyder administration’s failed practice of relying heavily on voluntary farm practices as the primary method to reduce agricultural runoff pollution to the lake,” Jameson added. “ The Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance program is not effective at curbing runoff pollution and was not designed as water quality improvement program.”
The Environmental Council offers praise for the plan’s increased focus on wetland restoration and conservation. However, the flaws carried over from older Lake Erie protection plans seriously undermine this potential progress. They include:
- Ongoing reliance on ineffective voluntary agricultural programs
- Failure to address issues of nutrient run-off from industrial agriculture applying manure on frozen or saturated ground
- A lack of concrete detail on how the state plans to measure reductions in dissolved phosphorus run-off—phosphorus that remains in the water even after it has been filtered—that feeds toxic algae
New to this plan is the proposed use of anaerobic digesters for manure as a water quality solution. The practice has not been proven to remove phosphorus, and the United States Department of Agriculture warns that it poses a higher risk for surface and groundwater contamination than fresh manure.