Integration is the Solution: Ontario’s Integrated Watershed-based Approach for Managing Natural Resources

By Kate Hayes, Credit Valley Conservation

Since Ontario passed the Conservation Authorities Act (CA Act) in 1946, the province has developed more than 70 years of experience in watershed-based natural resource management. Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities (CAs) protect and manage water and other natural resources on watershed-based units rather than political ones, mostly in southern Ontario. CAs are ideally suited to meet the needs of integrated approaches to managing natural resources.

36 conservation authorities ontario
A map showing the 36 Conservation Authorities in Ontario. Credit: Conservation Ontario

Ontario isn’t alone. Watershed management units have been endorsed in other jurisdictions including England, Wales, Australia and several U.S. states. In Ontario, municipalities are partners in conservation. CAs are formed through an agreement between all participating municipalities within a watershed, in accordance with the CA Act. These partnerships ensure successful adoption of shared responsibilities in a focused and targeted manner.

(See also: “A Land Trust Protects Lake Erie Through Conservation and Restoration”)

CAs and municipalities work in cooperation to approve development proposals or alterations within or near the floodplain. This fundamental principle has proven to be successful in safeguarding people, property and infrastructure by keeping development out of floodplains and consistently demonstrating dramatic reductions in flood-related damages and associated costs.

Within the watershed management framework, the planning process must be tailored to particular watersheds and subdivided into subwatersheds. Analysis and findings must be integrated from distinct but interconnected environmental disciplines for best results. It’s an approach that has evolved over decades.

Watershed-based resource management is most successful when subwatershed analysis is scaled further into communities and neighborhoods. Management approaches vary widely in scope and complexity at that level, but the environmental interconnectedness at the subwatershed and watershed levels must be understood throughout the decision making process. Other factors for success in the planning, implementing and monitoring phases include dedicated watershed managers.

The integrated watershed-based approach has influenced recent binational approaches for joint management of the Great Lakes, as outlined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

For example, a white paper prepared during the development of the Nearshore Framework introduced littoralshed as a term to link watersheds with their adjacent shoreline cell boundaries along the Great Lakes coast.

The littoralshed concept has novel management applications.  For example, actions focused on reducing nutrient loads to the nearshore (or zone of impact) need to focus on the source and transport pathways of those nutrients, namely the watersheds (or zone of influence). By encompassing the boundaries of physical processes that influence terrestrial and nearshore environments, littoralsheds are the appropriate scale for management initiatives that involve stressors and pathways that extend from the headwaters of watersheds to the nearshore waters of lakes.

A recent example of stakeholders exploring collaborative arrangements to better coordinate planning, research, and implementation efforts on the land and within the nearshore of western Lake Ontario is the Western Lake Ontario: Land to Lake Initiative. Early input by 23 municipalities and seven CAs in the proposed study area for the initiative has demonstrated an interest in sharing data, knowledge, monitoring protocols and best practices. There is overall interest in improved coordination and collaboration in the project study area.

The initiative is being coordinated by Credit Valley Conservation and Toronto and Region Conservation. The vision is for future phases to be led by an independent body.

western lake ontario
The proposed study area for the Western Lake Ontario: Land to Lake Initiative. Credit: CVC 2018

Integrated watershed management is not without its challenges. Information sharing between distinct but interconnected environmental disciplines can be difficult. At present, few tools are available to simplify information sharing. Also, a lack of guaranteed long-term, multi-year funding can hinder effective and widespread watershed planning and implementation. Lastly, a lack of political and public understanding of the importance of watershed management is another barrier to uptake and the allocation of funds. These challenges are slowly being overcome, and simply can’t compare with the results of past approaches that were not integrated and yielded excessive flood-related damages and associated costs.

Integrated watershed management through Ontario’s CAs has proven to be an effective model for managing natural resources, including water and human activity. The model’s success is recognized by and has been adopted in other jurisdictions. Broader integrated watershed management models are being explored to meet the wider challenges of an increasingly urbanized, populated Great Lakes basin. Ontario has learned that partnerships, collaboration and integration are needed to tackle the land use challenges of the future.

Kate Hayes is manager of Aquatic and Wetland Restoration and Management for Credit Valley Conservation, based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

A Land Trust Protects Lake Erie Through Conservation and Restoration

By Chris Collier, Black Swamp Conservancy

Robust land conservation involves an ongoing focus on protecting and restoring properties. Success is measured not only in terms of projects completed but in making a meaningful difference in the community for people and the environment. For 25 years, Black Swamp Conservancy has worked to protect Ohio’s natural heritage and ensure that it is preserved for future generations.

Formed in 1993 by citizens concerned with the rate of rural land development, the organization has protected more than 17,000 acres of land across northwest Ohio. Most of the work throughout our history has been protecting land through conservation easements with private landowners. These agreements permanently protect lands like natural areas and family farms from development. The conservancy also has used these agreements to create public parks, increasing public access to natural areas. This work has resulted in the protection of some of northwest Ohio’s best kept secrets and scenic landscapes.

lake erie shoreline black swamp conservancy
Lake Erie shoreline. Credit: Art Weber

In the past decade, harmful algal blooms have come to define the Western Lake Erie basin. With this ongoing threat to our region’s water quality, the conservancy has placed a new focus on projects that incorporate strategies to improve water quality. This resulted in the organization’s first foray into large-scale restoration. Using funds from the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Program, more than 60 acres of wetlands and natural stream corridor and 80 acres of upland buffer habitat have been restored at our Forrest Woods Nature Preserve near Cecil, Ohio. This project is located at the confluence of Marie DeLarme Creek and the Maumee State Scenic River, which means the restored wetlands are treating all the water from the Marie DeLarme Creek watershed before it enters the Maumee, the largest tributary to Lake Erie.

restoration habitat forrest woods
Restoration of 60 acres of wetlands and 80 acres of upland buffer habitat at Forrest Woods. Credit: Black Swamp Conservancy

(See also: “Integration is the Solution: Ontario’s Integrated Watershed-based Approach for Managing Natural Resources”)

With the success of the Forrest Woods project, the conservancy is planning several new restoration projects, including the next phase of our Forrest Woods project to restore more than 4,000 feet of floodplain along the Maumee River. Additionally, we are working with the Sandusky County Park District to restore two sites along the Sandusky River that bookend the city of Fremont. This will create two new public parks with fishing and paddling access, improve water quality and provide spawning and nursery habitat for important sport fish, including walleye and white bass. We also have formed a partnership with the Wood County Park District to restore a 10-acre, edge-of-field wetland, as well as 10 acres of associated upland, at the district’s Carter Historic Farm. This project will be used to demonstrate how wetland restoration and agriculture can coexist on the same property to improve water quality without impacting farm viability.

These projects demonstrate our commitment to protecting the region’s natural and agricultural heritage, which has led the conservancy to launch a new farm access program. This program will assist aspiring farmers hoping to create sustainable farms that market their products locally, by helping them overcome the most common barrier to entering the agricultural world: the high cost of land. To accomplish this, the conservancy will purchase farms, restore marginal areas, lease the land to beginning farmers, and work with tenant farmers to establish agricultural best management practices to protect water quality, improve soil health and reduce erosion. This program will help to protect Ohio’s agricultural heritage, improve environmental quality and bolster local economies.

black swamp conservancy paddles canoe rivers streams ohio
Black Swamp Conservancy leads regular paddles along the rivers and streams of northwest Ohio. Credit: Black Swamp Conservancy

These are but a few of the ways that Black Swamp Conservancy is working in northwest Ohio to improve our communities. This work would not be possible without the support of generous donors, volunteers and landowners.

If you are interested in finding out more, contact us at (419) 833-1025 or Learn more at

Chris Collier is the conservation manager at Black Swamp Conservancy, headquartered in Pemberville, Ohio.

Binational Wetlands Monitoring Program Finding Causes of Broader Water Quality Issues

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

wetland marsh superior
A wetland marsh on the northern shores of Lake Superior, near Thunder Bay, Ontario. Credit: Viv Lynch

A project to catalog, map and monitor every Great Lakes wetland larger than four hectares should be a boon to efforts to improve water quality, allowing researchers to get a better picture of where problems are arising and how expansive these problems might be.

The IJC commended the effort, called the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program, in its Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report. A couple of improvements were suggested, notably a more effective data management system and coordination mechanism to make it easier for the information collected to be used by partnering agencies and water managers.

The IJC also is undertaking its own wetlands project through the Great Lakes Water Quality Board. The project will summarize challenges associated with protecting and enhancing wetlands, and identify where wetland conservation and protection policies and programs have led to improved water quality and ecosystem health.

The board will provide recommendations to the IJC on how governments can make progress on a Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement target to achieve a net habitat gain in the Great Lakes; recommendations are expected in the spring of 2018.

The Canada-US Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement includes supporting healthy and productive wetlands capable of sustaining “resilient populations of native species” as part of its general objectives. In a 2017 State of the Great Lakes report released by the Canadian and US governments, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada found the overall health of wetlands to be “unchanging.”

Digging deeper, it’s considered unchanging because of a mix of good and bad news. While wetland connectivity seems to be improving across the basin, the diversity of wetland plants is declining in Lakes Huron and Erie. On the whole, Great Lakes wetlands are seeing improving conditions for wetland fish and deteriorating conditions for wetland invertebrates.

Moreover, while the assessment of extant wetlands and their composition is incomplete, but it has been reported that more than half of all historic Great Lakes wetlands have been lost, up to 90 percent in some areas. This has had a detrimental impact on water quality and habitat, and the IJC has advocated for a stronger binational monitoring program. In recent years, such a program has gotten underway.

“The Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program dates back to the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conferences held in 1996 and 1998 between Environment Canada and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” said Don Uzarski, director of Central Michigan University’s Institute of Great Lakes Research and a principal investigator for the program. Those conferences called for standardized methods to monitor and measure ecosystem health, rather than each government using its own standards and measurements.

great lakes coastal monitoring
The Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program has developed a map of all wetlands large enough for researchers to regularly monitor. Green dots represent river mouth wetlands, orange dots open embayment wetlands, and blue ones protected wetlands. Credit: Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program

“After years of discussions with dozens of agencies, organizations and people, in 2010 the monitoring program got underway with a $10 million grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Another $10 million was awarded in 2015,” Uzarski said. Central Michigan University (CMU) oversees the $20 million in research funds used across the basin for the program, and is allowed to subcontract out to researchers in Canada. In that initial five-year period, researchers quantified ecosystem disturbances in every coastal wetland in the Great Lakes basin larger than four hectares. These included physical characteristics of the wetlands, chemical pollution, plant species, fish, amphibians, birds, invertebrates (such as insects) and how variable these aspects are in different parts of the wetland and over time.

In total, about 1,039 wetlands in the Great Lakes met those criteria, said Jan Ciborowski, biological sciences professor with the University of Windsor. With a full listing of sites completed, universities and agencies involved in the project have split up the duties of rechecking wetland sites based on geography, revisiting about one-fifth each year. In the US, this includes Lake Superior State University, the University of Notre Dame, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and US Geological Survey. University of Windsor heads up the Canadian side of the lakes, Ciborowski said, with the help of Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Studies Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. This second five-year cycle just finished up its second year of surveys, Ciborowski said, which has started to paint a picture of how individual wetlands are changing.

humbug marsh detroit river
Humbug Marsh located south of Detroit is one of the few remaining natural wetlands along the US side of the Detroit River. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

“We and our students go out in the summer and assess the water quality, and water samples are collected,” he said. “We also have people going out in the spring and early summer to investigate waterfowl and amphibians, and we have teams that evaluate aquatic vegetation, fish, and invertebrates in the summer.”

This information has been used to build an initial database of wetlands available on the program’s website. Ciborowski said this information is valuable from an ecosystem standpoint (as the fish people like to catch and eat can live in these wetlands) and a water quality standpoint: if a part of the Great Lakes reports issues with algal blooms, a fish kill or botulism, researchers can check the data to see if these issues are restricted to one location or are occurring in a broader region.

“We’re facing local problems, but we also face regional ones, and it’s important to know where to look [for causes] when those events occur,” Ciborowski said.

The monitoring program also provides basic and robust scientific knowledge that could be helpful for future research projects, he added, and is a great way to train future scientists due to the number of students working on it.

wetlands garden island cmu
Research students from Central Michigan University collect samples and data from the wetlands off of Garden Island in Lake Michigan. Credit: Don Uzarski

And while full results for the second visits won’t be available until 2020, the sites already visited are painting a picture of just how complex these ecosystems are. For example, Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay has seen the invasive plant Phragmites essentially take over coastal wetlands, Uzarski said.

“But we’re also seeing trends of increased water quality in the marshes, so that massive (Phragmites) biomass may be bad for wildlife but it is serving as a tremendous filter of pollutants coming off of the  landscape, so we’re seeing other aspects of the wetland improve, like water quality,” Uzarski said. Overall, the Saginaw Bay region would be considered moderately impacted and unchanged in overall health, but some aspects are improving and others are worsening.

The expansion of terrestrial invasive species like Phragmites, starry stonewort and Chinese water chestnut has been detrimental to the ecological health of the wetlands throughout the Great Lakes, Ciborowski noted.

Ciborowski said surveys also have shown how much the health of coastal wetlands rely on Great Lakes water levels.

At low levels, a relatively small number of fish species were found in the wetlands, and waterfowl and amphibians that rely on wetlands were doing poorly. With more water filling those coastal wetland areas, those species have rebounded. Additional water also changes the competition between plant species.

The shift to using Plan 2014 to manage water flows from Lake Ontario also should help restore ailing wetlands along the lake and the upper St. Lawrence River by more closely mimicking natural water level cycles – these areas account for about 20 percent of the remaining wetlands in the Great Lakes basin. Natural variations in lake levels promote more natural diversity in wetland plants. For example, occasional extremely high water levels like those seen on Lake Ontario and Lake Superior in 2017 can drown out upland plant species that can encroach into wetlands in lower water years.

marshland lake ontario new york
Marshland along Lake Ontario’s east bay in New York provides habitat for a variety of plants and animals. Credit: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Students Helping to Restore Threatened Plant in Saginaw Bay

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

pitchers thistle saginaw bay
A Pitcher’s thistle plant blooming on the beach of Big Charity Island, located in the Saginaw Bay. Credit: Au Gres-Sims School District

Students from the Au Gres-Sims School District have been skipping the classroom, taking a boat to an island in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, and harvesting a threatened plant.

But they’re not in trouble. They’re working with the US federal government and other organizations to help restore native species to their rural Michigan community and get rid of an invasive reed.

Au Gres-Sims students have been taking the boat to Big Charity Island in Saginaw Bay to bolster a small surviving population of Pitcher’s thistle, a threatened plant that grows on beaches and dunes along Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan. The work is coupled with efforts by the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, Huron Pines, Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University (MSU) Extension to remove an invasive plant called Phragmites and hopefully return the thistle to habitat near Au Gres where it’s been extirpated.

charity islands saginaw bay map
The Charity Islands are located near the mouth of the Saginaw Bay. Credit: Google

The district started its environmental stewardship initiative in the fall of 2013, said Superintendent Jeff Collier. Thanks to grants and support from outside organizations, the district was able to provide students with gear to wade into the Au Gres River to test water quality samples and collect bugs, aquatic insects, and other tiny creatures. The students were able to get a firsthand look at soil erosion studies and how to use insects as an indicator of water quality, working with scientists and staff from the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMGLSI), which in turn put them in touch with the Alpena office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), MSU and Huron Pines to use the data and make it available via National Geographic’s FieldScope citizen science program.

Collier wanted to see the stewardship program be sustainable year  after year, which led to partnerships with scientists throughout Saginaw Bay. Ultimately, he said, this led to a connection with the Shiawassee refuge office and its wildlife refuge on Big Charity Island, which is technically within the school district’s boundaries alongside the smaller Little Charity Island.

students board boat
Students board a boat heading out to Big Charity Island to assist with efforts to safeguard the Pitcher’s thistle population there. Credit: Au Gres-Sims School District

Little Charity Island and most of Big Charity Island are part of Michigan Islands Wildlife Refuge, owned by USFWS, with some private parcels and a lighthouse on the big island. The invasive reed Phragmites has been spreading on the big island, which prompted landowners in the area to request a response from Huron Pines in 2013 to try and get it under control, said USFWS biologist Michelle Vander Haar.

Huron Pines, a nonprofit in Gaylord, partnered with the school district, USFWS and other organizations  on a partnership agreement in 2015 to address the infestation: fourth-grade students from the school district would count thistle plants and mark their locations, while USFWS and Huron Pines crews would remove Phragmites from the island using herbicide. Since the invasive plant crowds out native species, including Pitcher’s thistle, bolstering the thistle’s population while Phragmites plants are still standing would be futile.

The thistle’s vulnerability stems from its specific habitat needs. Vander Haar said the plant needs open sandy areas to thrive, such as a beach or a sand dune, and can take five to eight years to blossom. As a result, populations are cyclical: students have done counts in 2016 and 2017, finding only five adult plants the first year and more than 30 the second. Vander Haar said this isn’t abnormal for the species, but with the Phragmites encroaching on the thistles, they’re at risk.

“They’re picky little creatures,” she said. “But the thing we’re worried about is the Phragmites infestation. In some areas, we have Phragmites growing right next to Pitcher’s thistle.”

To help out, Au Gres-Sims students have received permission from USFWS to take seeds from thistle plants back to the school district, where an unheated greenhouse is being set up on loan from USFWS. High school students will be in charge of raising Pitcher’s thistle plants from those seeds, with an aim of returning the plugs (young seedlings) back to the island.

If the agency meets its population goals for the island, the thistles could be reintroduced to waterfront protected or state areas around Au Gres that it historically inhabited using the seeds and plugs the Au Gres-Sims students are growing, Vander Haar added. While much of the northern Saginaw Bay is naturally wetland, some areas around Au Gres – like private property on the peninsula Point Lookout – formerly held populations, according to the USFWS Pitcher’s thistle recovery plan.

Collier said the students are hoping to have plugs to transport back to Big Charity Island in the spring of 2018, with students marking the location of each with the help of a handheld global positioning system (GPS). Then when students return in the fall, they could check and see how each of the planted thistles is doing.

The students also are marking the locations of Phragmites plants and collecting samples for genetic research, said Meaghan Gass, NEMGLSI network coordinator. Partners from her organization’s network are then able to check the data so that students can interpret it in the classroom.

“It’s connecting science with math and English (classes), as they write reports on what they’ve found,” Gass said. “They’ve developed a report for one year, and we want them to aggregate and compare their data.”

Collier said the thistle project has helped improve students’ proficiency scores and increased interest in the district’s Science Olympiad and robotics teams.  In the long term, he thinks the project might lead to a greater appreciation of science, critical thought, and environmental stewardship in the rural community.

He said he hopes the approach that Au Gres-Sims has taken toward an environmental stewardship program could be replicated by districts elsewhere.

“We don’t want to do one-hit wonders,” Collier said. “It’s not just about putting on waders and going into the river. It’s taking that river water quality project and making a bigger impact. It’s looking at a climate on an island and seeing how that is impacting native and invasive species. We are collectively building lasting, capstone experiences that are both sustainable and impactful for our students and our entire community. That’s what we’re really doing throughout the scope of this unique STEM initiative, and it is wonderfully fantastic!”

As for Big Charity Island, Vander Haar said that thanks to leaf samples of Phragmites brought back on ice, researchers at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) have been able to do genetic testing of the invasive plants. SVSU Biology Professor David Stanton said DNA “fingerprinting” techniques similar to those used by law enforcement have allowed researchers to determine that the Big Charity Island Phragmites population isn’t particularly genetically diverse, and is mostly arriving by plants or seeds washing out of the Saginaw River.

So far, spraying has wiped out about 70 percent of the Phragmites population, Stanton said, and reduced the genetic variations on the island. On the flip side, he said it appears new plants are still washing out to the island from the Saginaw River (and to a lesser extent other parts of the bay that Phragmites have colonized). So unless that population is dealt with – and a sizable number is on private land along the water – this will be a recurring issue on the island. Additionally, there is evidence that the plants remaining after the spraying are those genetically predisposed to resisting the herbicide, a case of evolutionary fitness that may require more expensive and toxic herbicides to stamp out.

“It’s going to be a long-term, uphill battle,” Stanton said. “Saginaw River isn’t the only source. There are large populations in Au Gres, Port Austin, the whole eastern shore is basically taken over by Phragmites – you can’t even launch a boat anymore – and the western shore is being taken over too.”

Phragmites also have been spotted in a small patch on Little Charity Island, though that island’s status as a colonial nesting bird habitat means they have to time the visit to limit outside impact, Vander Haar explained.

(See also: “Collaborative Fights Phragmites with International Approach”)

students learn thistle
Students learn how to identify a thistle plant that isn’t blooming during a trip to Charity Island. Credit: Brandon Schroeder, Michigan Sea Grant

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.


Managing Great Lakes Ice: Preventing Jams and Keeping Water Flowing

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

ice cover st lawrence river
Ice cover was established on the St. Lawrence River by Jan. 10 this year. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

With winter here, annual efforts to manage ice flows in the St. Marys, Niagara, and St. Lawrence rivers are in full swing. Management efforts in these connecting channels of the Great Lakes aim to prevent ice jams that can cause winter floods and damage to hydroelectric turbines, while contending with difficult or unexpected winter conditions.

In cold seasons, ice typically forms along the Great Lakes and its connecting channels. Unregulated, this ice can take a while to form a solid layer due to currents, leading broken pieces of ice to jam up and cause flooding.

Control structures are in place for shipping and hydropower needs but hydropower dams and ice booms provide a way to influence how ice forms which in turn helps to prevent flooding and protect equipment.

The St. Lawrence River

Prior to dams being built on the St. Lawrence River, ice jams and winter floods were frequent in sections of the river from Ogdensburg, New York, to Montreal, Quebec, said Gail Faveri, co-secretary of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board. Construction of the Moses-Saunders Dam has allowed water managers on both sides of the St. Lawrence a way to control the amount of water flowing out of the river and thus influence how ice forms above and below the dam. By slowing down the velocity, Faveri said, a solid, stable ice cover forms more easily. As ice ages, it smooths out, allowing water flows to increase again without destabilizing the cover.

“When the ice is forming you can lower the flow and slow the velocity, allowing the ice to form (properly),” Faveri said. “Once it gets established, you can go and allow a higher outflow. It functions more like a pipe … and you can drive more water through.”

The gates at the Iroquois Dam at Iroquois, Ontario, also may be used to promote ice formation upstream.

Power companies also install ice booms around Nov. 20 each year between Prescott, Ontario, and Cardinal, New York, to help ice form upstream, Faveri said. Those are handled by Ontario Power Generation and the New York Power Authority, and the IJC is alerted when the booms are installed. Two main booms that stretch across the main channel of the river remain partially open until the Seaway closes to vessel traffic each winter.

Eastern Lake Erie

Now turning upstream, this season’s Lake Erie-Niagara River ice boom was installed on Dec. 16-17 by the New York Power Authority at the outlet of Lake Erie as it has been every ice season since 1964. The IJC issues approvals to the New York Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation to install the boom to accelerate the formation of a naturally occurring ice arch at the outlet of Lake Erie into the Niagara River, said Derrick Beach, secretary to the International Niagara Board of Control. Conditions for the operation of the ice boom are provided in the IJC’s approval to ensure that potential impacts, like flooding to surrounding residents and activities on the lake and river are minimized. The IJC has appointed the International Niagara Board of Control to oversee that the conditions of the ice boom’s approval are met.

“The ice boom reduces the amount of ice that goes down the Niagara River,” Beach said. “The ice naturally (accumulates) in that area on the lake creating an ice arch and the ice boom helps the formation of that natural ice arch that holds the ice back in Lake Erie.”

ice boom New York Power Authority
Lake Erie-Niagara River Ice Boom with ice accumulation from the lake. Each curve along the edge of the ice is where a span of pontoons are anchored to the bottom of Lake Erie. Credit: New York Power Authority

Once the ice arch forms, it naturally reduces the amount of ice entering the Niagara River and the potential of the ice jamming or damaging intakes in hydroelectric power plants along the way. As an added benefit, Beach said the ice boom helps prevent ice from jamming in the Niagara River and causing flooding and shoreline property damage along the river. However, as a floating boom, if high winds or thick ice cause a lot of ice to push against it, the boom will be pushed under water and allow some ice to pass, and then float to the surface again after the ice has passed, allowing some natural transport of ice to continue.

The Lake Erie-Niagara River boom consists of about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) of floating pontoons cabled together, and is maintained by the New York Power Authority on behalf of the hydropower generating facilities on the US and Canadian sides of the Niagara River. Some of these conditions include that the boom cannot be installed each year until the water temperature of Lake Erie drops to 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) or on Dec. 16, whichever comes first. As well, the boom’s approval requires that all floating sections be opened by April 1 unless there is more than 650 square kilometers (250 square miles) of ice remaining in the eastern part of Lake Erie. The latest the boom was taken out was May 3, 1971.

The St. Marys River and uncontrolled channels

Hydropower entities install ice booms in the St. Marys River connecting Lakes Superior and Huron to protect their operations, as does the US Army Corps of Engineers to protect a ferry operator, said John Allis, alternate regulation representative with the International Lake Superior Board of Control and Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology office chief for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Detroit District. At the start of December, the focus of water managers – much as in the St. Lawrence region – is on reducing water flows using its compensating works flow control structure and hydropower operations so that a solid ice cover can form, allowing a consistent water flow the rest of the winter to reduce the chances of ice jams.

“Even if we could chip ice away from the compensating gates to be able to open them up during the winter, we don’t want to drastically change flows month to month, as you could begin to break up the ice cover and getting that ice flowing, causing ice jams,” Allis said.

ice jam st clair river water levels january usace
An ice jam on the St. Clair River caused water levels downstream to drop the first week of January. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

The connecting channel between Lakes Huron and Erie has no control structures, Allis said, but the USACE and Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) monitors ice conditions along the St. Clair and Detroit rivers in the winter months in case of ice jams. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the CHS have gauges along the connecting channels, and when a jam is forming water levels can suddenly decline downstream and increase upstream as the water is backed up. When those instances occur, Allis said the Corps notifies the US Coast Guard so it can send an icebreaker to clear the jam before it can cause a flood event along the shoreline.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Less Fertilizer, More Transparency Needed in Western Lake Erie Basin

By Jeff Kart, IJC

western lake erie cattle farm
In the western Lake Erie basin, cattle, swine and poultry are the dominant farm animal operations. Credit: Pixabay

An assessment of fertilizer applications and impacts in the western Lake Erie basin has led to some discoveries. What it didn’t discover is perhaps just as important.

The IJC report was generated by the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board’s Science Priority Committee. The primary focus was on determining the relative contributions of commercial (or synthetic) fertilizer and manure to phosphorus loading.

Phosphorus is a nutrient that aids in plant growth — when it’s used on farmland or lawns and when it runs off into waterways. The western Lake Erie basin has seen a spike in algal growth and harmful algal blooms due to excess phosphorus inputs. The basin also receives phosphorus from wastewater and industrial discharges and urban non-point source runoff. But the greatest source, estimated at two-thirds of the total phosphorus load to the lake, is agriculture.

What’s the magnitude of this? The IJC report used commercial fertilizer sales data, reported rates of application and total manure generation based on livestock numbers within the watershed to derive estimates. Unfortunately, prevailing privacy policies limit access to farm-scale data and information, so the calculated amount is an estimate.

Among the report’s recommendations are that agencies “obtain (e.g. through surveys, available datasets and any new data as appropriate) commercial fertilizer sales and application data at both higher temporal and spatial resolution to allow for improved understanding of this important source.”

study area limnotech lake erie fertilizer report
The study area. Credit: Limnotech

The IJC has previously recommended mandatory standards to get harmful algal blooms under control in the western Lake Erie basin.

The IJC report estimates that more than 41,000 metric tons of phosphorus is included in manure generated and commercial fertilizer applied in the US portion of the watershed. Another 16,000-plus metric tons of phosphorus is included in manure generated and fertilizer applied in the Canadian watershed. This is based on the most recent comparable binational data from 2006-2007, as compiled and analyzed by Limnotech, a Michigan-based consulting firm that assisted the committee in preparing the report.

Most phosphorus used in agriculture comes from commercial fertilizers — an estimated 72 percent between the two countries. On the US side, commercial fertilizer supplies the majority of nutrients at 81 percent. Ontario watersheds receive slightly more phosphorus from manure (52 percent) than commercial fertilizer (48 percent), according to the report, “Fertilizer Application Patterns and Trends and Their Implications for Water Quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin.”

In better news, the report finds that phosphorus fertilizer inputs are declining while more phosphorus is being removed when crops are harvested. However, phosphorus stored in the soil has the potential to contribute to river loads for years or decades to come. The analysis also found that the adoption of appropriate management practices – the timing, rate, location and method of commercial fertilizer and manure placement – may have a bigger influence on phosphorus export from agricultural watersheds than the type of fertilizer.

Control measures enacted in the 1970s demonstrated that Lake Erie eutrophication could be reversed by strategies focused mainly on point sources like wastewater and industrial discharges.

“The challenge this time is with agricultural nonpoint sources of nutrients, which will require a different set of responses,” the report states. “Lake Erie has benefitted from bold action in the past and requires similar bold action today to ensure its health and value to the people of the basin into the future.”

lake erie phosphorus infographic

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.

Green Without Envy: Great Lakes Drown in Excessive Nutrient Pollution

By Michael Mezzacapo, IJC

pointe pelee ontario lake erie algal bloom 2011
A photo taken off of Point Peele, Ontario, during 2011’s severe Lake Erie algal bloom. Credit: IJC

2017 was another significant year for algal blooms on Lake Erie, claiming the spot for the third largest algal bloom on record. Scientists believe the major factor of the massive bloom was due to excess runoff from agricultural areas due to high concentrations of phosphorus in the Maumee River watershed after heavy precipitation events in May and June. Excessive nutrient runoff from nonpoint sources is significantly degrading water quality in all the Great Lakes, with the exception of Lake Superior. Solutions to solving the excessive nutrient problem are complex and will involve widespread government, stakeholder and community participation.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently highlighted an alarming figure: in eight of the last 10 years, Lake Erie has had algal blooms that were classified as significant. NOAA classifies severity based on a bloom’s biomass over a sustained period. But nutrients aren’t the only cause of the excessive algal blooms; other factors contributing to the increases include intensive land use practices and changing climate patterns.

chart western lake erie blooms
Chart showing the severity of western Lake Erie blooms. Credit: NOAA

Runoff from agricultural areas into western Lake Erie is the major source of nutrient loadings. Of the agricultural sources, about 70 percent of the nutrients are from commercial fertilizer application and 30 percent from animal manure. Combine excessive runoff of phosphorus from commercial fertilizer and animal manure with changing climatic conditions in the Great Lakes and you may have a recipe for excessive algal blooms and potentially harmful algal blooms (which emit toxins harmful to humans and wildlife).

loading to st clair western lake erie
Figure showing a comparison of total phosphorus (TP) tributary loading to Lake St. Clair and the western Lake Erie. Sources: Michigan Sea Grant, M. Maccoux, Contractor ECCC, S. Wortman, USEPA, D. Obenour, NCSU, M. Evans, USGS. Credit: IJC

Analysis from a recently released IJC Science Advisory Board Report showed that excess phosphorus from fertilizer application is often stored in agricultural soils, nearby ditches, buffer zones and wetlands with the potential to leach nutrients for years or even decades. “Even a small ‘leakage’ of excess phosphorus may be sufficient to contribute to algal blooms,” the report says.

(See also: “Less Fertilizer, More Transparency Needed in Western Lake Erie Basin”)

Want to Know More?
In addition to the IJC’s recent recommendations on nutrients in its TAP report, The IJC’s Water Quality Board and Science Advisory boards have released reports relating to the issue of nutrient pollution by highlighting watershed management tactics and investigating fertilizer loading issues. Click the reports below to learn more.
1. Fertilizer Application Patterns and Trends and Their Implications for Water Quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin. This report assesses fertilizer (primarily commercial fertilizer and manure) application and impacts in the western Lake Erie basin.
2. Watershed Management of Nutrients in Lake Erie. This report provides recommendations on how watershed management plans should be used to curb nutrient pollution in Lake Erie.
3. Evaluating Watershed Management Plans, Nutrient Management Approaches in the Lake Erie Basin and Key Locations Outside of the Lake Erie Basin. This report discusses watershed management plans to manage nutrient pollution in Lake Erie and identifies several key factors necessary for watershed management plans to achieve meaningful nutrient load reductions.

Eliminating all nutrient runoff isn’t the answer to solving this crisis. Just like the human body, lakes need nutrients to sustain life. Nutrients are chemical elements that support all animal and plant life. Nutrients support algae (technically known as phytoplankton), the primary producers which are the foundation of a lake’s food web. Eutrophication is the process a waterbody undergoes when subjected to an excessive load of nutrients. Eutrophication can set the stage for algae and aquatic plants to grow out of control. When the excess algae growth eventually dies, bacteria and microorganisms feed on the dead material and consume available oxygen in the water. If oxygen levels dip too low, massive fish die-offs can occur, which can severely impact ecosystems.

phosphorus cycle graphic ecosystem
A graphic illustrating the nutrient cycling of phosphorus in an ecosystem. Credit: Michael Mezzacapo

Excessive nutrient runoff also has the potential to impact conditions in and around the lakes and may affect human health. Research has shown that pathogens from bacteria in the algal blooms can cause avian (bird) botulism, which thrives in nutrient-rich, low-oxygen conditions. As environmental conditions become more favorable for algae and bacteria, humans may be at risk from the prevalence of diseases by consuming affected animals and fish, or coming into contact with contaminated water or objects.  Additionally, if municipal drinking water systems aren’t prepared to handle many of the toxins produced by harmful algal blooms, access to clean water may be impaired, as happened in the 2014 Toledo, Ohio, water crisis.

(See also: “Beach Read: Cyanotoxins in the Great Lakes”)

The impacts of excessive nutrients and algal blooms are being felt across the Great Lakes basin as well as other waters in Canada and the United States. Governments are taking notice. Through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the United States and Canada have established updated targets for reducing phosphorus loading to the western and central basins of Lake Erie. Strategies, known as Domestic Action Plans, outline programs and policies considered necessary to meet reductions in nutrient loading.

Updated targets include a 40 percent reduction in nutrient offloading between the US and Canada, especially in particularly sensitive tributary regions of Lake Erie, like Thames River in Ontario and the Maumee in Ohio.

The 40 percent reduction target commits Canada to offloading no more than 212 metric tons annually, largely from the Thames River and Leamington area. American emissions, centered on the Maumee and Sandusky watersheds, cannot total more than 3,316 metric tons to hit a 6,000-metric-ton target.

In its First Triannual Assessment of Progress (TAP), the IJC forwarded several recommendations to reduce nutrient pollution and improve water quality, urging the governments to provide more details on timelines, responsible parties and measurable outcomes.

nutrient pollution recommendations triennial assessment progress
A graphic outlining the IJC’s TAP recommendations to reduce excessive nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes. Credit: IJC

Although there are many non-regulatory or voluntary actions in place to reduce excessive nutrient runoff, such as agricultural best management practices (BMPs), the IJC has called for stricter standards and enforcement on nutrient runoff. Improving compliance on BMPs and using regulatory enforcement will assist the governments to meet set targets for nutrient reduction in Lake Erie.

Western Lake Erie water quality has been greatly impacted by nuisance and harmful algal blooms, but there is hope. In the 1960s and 1970s, phosphorus pollution from municipal wastewater systems and detergents was causing excessive algal blooms. Governments at federal, state and provincial, and local levels as well as citizens worked together to install pollution controls and substantially reduce the algal blooms, voluntary bans on phosphorus detergent began in the 1990s. Bold action solved the problem in the past and bold action is needed now. Many new research studies and reports address the issue of nutrient pollution, but this should not delay stakeholders from performing early measures to reduce their share of nutrient runoff.

Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Code Blue: Great Lakes Water Needs a Doctor

By Michael Mezzacapo, IJC

water quality buoy monitoring epa
An EPA Water Quality Monitoring Buoy, which collects live water quality data, providing valuable information to continue the monitoring of pollution and the health of Great Lakes waters. Credit: EPA

Imagine waking up one morning to hear news that your city is under a “do not drink” advisory, or receiving a text from your local government to remain indoors because of a toxic release at the local chemical plant. What would you do; how would you feel?

Unfortunately, the above scenarios aren’t fiction; they already occur. Great Lakes beaches get closed, drinking water advisories are issued and some fish are unsafe to eat. One of the starkest examples of this occurred in 2014, when Toledo, Ohio, a city of nearly 300,000 people, and many of its suburbs were under a “do not drink” advisory for three days due to high microcystin levels in western Lake Erie as a result of extensive harmful algal blooms. This emergency impacted nearly 500,000 people. Serious water quality events also occurred in Walkerton, Ontario, where seven people died and 2,300 fell ill in 2000 due to high levels of E.coli bacteria in their water supply. Similar dangerous scenarios occur basinwide in rural and urban communities. Many First Nations communities in Canada are plagued with boil water advisories.

It’s no secret the Great Lakes have been severely impacted by human development. However, more than 35 million citizens in the US and Canada rely on the lakes for drinking water, food and recreation. The importance of protecting human health from preventable hazards cannot be overlooked.

The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement highlights the importance of maintaining the quality of human health in the Great Lakes basin. But the Agreement doesn’t have dedicated human health annexes addressing activities associated with the objectives of drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters. The IJC believes there should be a greater focus on protecting human health through these objectives.

The IJC’s first Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report states, “The IJC has consistently expressed concern about the need to increase attention to the human health implications of the quality of Great Lakes waters. One of the most vital concerns of the public is the safety or risk to human health or exposure to Great Lakes contaminants through fish consumption, drinking water and swimming.”

Year-after-year, water quality issues continue to affect millions of Great Lakes citizens. For example, the third-largest algal bloom occurred in Lake Erie in 2017. While this didn’t result in the drinking water advisories witnessed in 2014, city drinking water supplies were still impacted. When the algal blooms die and decompose they create dead zones of low oxygen, causing the water to emit a noxious odor and  kill fish. Toledo’s municipal drinking water system, for example, has used multiple preventative measures  including treating the water at the intake with potassium permanganate to oxidize algae and ensure drinking water quality.

cyanobacteria bloom lake erie intake
Cyanobacterial bloom at a drinking water intake in Lake Erie. Credit: EPA.

To reduce human health risks from drinking water contamination, the TAP report recommends that both governments protect source water supplies for drinking water, rather than simply treating the water after it is withdrawn. Source water is a supply of water eventually used to withdraw drinking water. Ontario measures data at source water locations and reports if they meet Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standards at more than 450 drinking water systems in Ontario. However, the US does not have a similar program to track and monitor source water.

Another threat to water quality and human health occurs from effects of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). CSOs have major health and economic impacts, resulting in increased treatment costs to drinking water supplies and beach closures in order to protect humans from dangerous pathogens. The IJC recommends zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes and its connecting waters.

recommendations drinking water great lakes
IJC TAP recommendations on drinking water. Credit: IJC.

The Great Lakes also are a source of food and recreation for millions of anglers. But, every Great Lake has some type of fish consumption advisory. Harmful substances like mercury, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have entered the lakes for decades, where they persist and contaminate species throughout the food web. Better communication of fish consumptions advisories is needed throughout the Great Lakes, particularly for populations who eat a lot of Great Lakes fish or those who are at greater risk, such as women of child-bearing age or young children. Major communication discrepancies need to be addressed. A 2005 study found that Caucasian residents were six times more likely to be aware of state fish consumption advisories compared to their African American neighbors. The IJC concludes in its TAP report:  “An understanding of knowledge gaps in advisories along with message refinement and alternative outreach efforts are needed to increase compliance with fish consumption guidelines, particularly among subpopulations.”

graphic contaminants fish consumption advisories
Graphic highlighting the main contaminates that cause fish consumption advisories in each of the Great Lakes and IJC TAP recommendations relating to fish consumption. Credit: EPA/IJC

The Great Lakes have 10,900 miles (17,549 km) of coastline. Recreation is a vital part of the region’s culture and economy. Visitors who frequent beaches for swimming and boating contribute to local communities by purchasing goods and services. If beaches are closed due to pollution, local businesses are the first to feel the impacts. The opportunity to enjoy the lakes is a key element of the quality of life for residents throughout the region.

An Agreement objective states that the Great Lakes “should allow for swimming and other recreational use, unrestricted by environmental quality concerns,” yet studies show adverse health effects associated with recreation in Great Lakes waters polluted by human and animal waste. The IJC found in its TAP report that Great Lakes beaches are open 96 percent of the season in the United States and 78 percent of the season in Canada. But inconsistent monitoring of beaches for their safety, as well as posting warnings or closings, is endangering human health in some areas.

Extreme weather conditions and climate change also exacerbate the impacts of pollution on Great Lakes beaches. According to Martin Denecke, director of Youth Recreation and Senior Services for Hamburg, New York, beaches have been closed frequently for swimming, “The creeks that run in to the lake are flowing faster, some of the creeks are polluted so those pollutants get into the water and that affects the quality of the water,” Denecke told a local TV station.

The discharge of industrial chemicals also threatens public health and the tourism economy. In April 2017, a steel plant near the Indiana Dune National Lakeshore caused several beach closures after 346 pounds of chromium spilled into Lake Michigan. Beaches near the plant, including those in the town of Ogden Dunes and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, were closed for almost a week.

While the IJC does not include specific recommendations in the TAP report about safe swimming, it concludes that “governments at all levels must strive to further improve safety and beach health” by standardizing monitoring and adopting consistent indicators of beach health that will “improve reporting, protect beaches, and increase public safety when using Great Lakes beaches.”

skip rocks lake erie pa
Father and son, Steve and Tyler Kaminski, skip rocks on Lake Erie at Fisherman’s Beach in North East, Pennsylvania. Credit: Michael Mezzacapo

Finally, the IJC also finds in its TAP report that improving reporting on domestic and binational actions related to drinking water, recreation and fish consumption objectives by both countries would promote better analysis of the progress toward achieving the related Agreement objectives.

For example, an improved and more comprehensive collection of health data could be assembled around watersheds or ecosystems, rather than political boundaries. By using a broader, more inclusive approach, this method would support a more thorough analysis of the connections between water quality and human health, and be more likely to prompt appropriate action. By creating easily accessible visual products which show the scale and distribution of impacts, such as beach closings, the public  could be better informed and thus more likely to follow warning and closure guidelines.

Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Make It Mandatory: Voluntary Programs Aren’t Enough to Stop Lake Erie Algae

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

stormwater great lakes tap
Untreated stormwater can flow into the Great Lakes, bringing runoff, high in nutrients, along for the ride. Credit: Annis Water Resources Institute-GVSU

While commending governments for establishing targets to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie, the IJC concluded in its first Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report that the condition of water quality in Erie’s western basin is unacceptable.

In its 2014 Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) report, the IJC recommended that governments use more regulatory mechanisms and certification standards on nutrient pollution as a way to accelerate progress in reducing the size and intensity of harmful algal blooms in the lake’s western basin. The TAP report, released Nov. 28, 2017, further recommends mandatory standards and controls, and states that over the past 10-15 years, governments at all levels have been focused on incentive-based and voluntary programs to reduce nutrient loadings. Other organizations such as the Alliance for Great Lakes and the Ohio Environmental Council counter that these voluntary programs aren’t enough to reach the 40 percent nutrient pollution reductions that the governments agreed to target. Those groups – and the IJC – maintain that mandatory efforts are necessary to get harmful algal blooms under control, as 10-15 years of government supported voluntary measures haven’t resulted in meaningful improvements to Lake Erie’s water quality.

The federal governments, as well as the states and provinces that link to Lake Erie either directly or through tributaries – Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana – have to come up with domestic action plans on how they’re going to help reach those 40 percent reduction targets. Some of those governments have already put draft plans forward, including Michigan, Ontario, Indiana and Ohio, but a reliance on voluntary programs in those three states and Ontario leaves the IJC skeptical that they can reach those targets as is.

noaa nutrients lake erie
Nutrients such as phosphorus entering western Lake Erie are causing harmful algal blooms to spring up each year in late summer. This photo is from Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

This isn’t to say the IJC doesn’t find merit in these voluntary programs; the TAP reports that promoting incentive-based and voluntary best practices are a critical component to improving the health of Lake Erie. But the domestic action plans should include enforceable standards and timetables for reaching reduction goals, and measurable methods to quantify whether the state or provincial governments are hitting those benchmarks. This may include restoring lost wetlands or constructing new ones, which are an effective way to filter out nutrients before they reach the lake.

Lake Erie’s nutrient problems aren’t limited to the western basin, where phosphorus and other nutrients enter the lake primarily from the Maumee River, and to a lesser extent the Detroit River and the Thames River via Lake St. Clair. Although the problem is much worse in the western basin, pockets of nearshore nutrient and algae problems can be found around the lake. The TAP finds that a major source of nutrients (such as phosphorus) entering western Lake Erie are agricultural operations, including fertilizer applications and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Legislative measures to address these sources have been limited; Ohio has passed legislation to keep manure and fertilizer from being placed in winter months to reduce runoff from CAFOs and farms, but there are still thousands of animal feeding operations in Michigan, Ontario and Ohio that aren’t required to get any kind of permit. The IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board has a project underway to look at different manure regulations throughout the Lake Erie region, with a report expected in early 2018.

harmful algal bloom maumee
A harmful algal bloom spreads into the Maumee River in 2017. Credit: NOAA GLERL, Aerial Associates Photography Inc./Zachary Haslick

While agriculture is the primary contributor, failing and leaking septic systems and urban runoff are   important sources of nutrient pollution, too. The IJC recommends governments require periodic testing, maintenance and replacement of septic systems in Canada and the United States.  Urban nutrient runoff from pipes has declined over the past 40 years thanks to a concerted effort to upgrade sewer systems and close off other major direct single sources. But rainstorms and snowmelt can cause sewer overflows and nutrients from lawn care and construction activities to enter waterways. The IJC recommends the promotion and usage of green infrastructure (like rain gardens, filter strips, and engineered wetlands) to continue reducing runoff in those areas.

Finally, the IJC recommends that Ohio follow Michigan’s lead in declaring western Lake Erie impaired under the US Clean Water Act, which would require a tri-state maximum daily load of phosphorus be developed for those two states and Indiana, under US Environmental Protection Agency oversight. This would provide a mechanism to determine how much phosphorus can enter the water system without compromising water quality, and ultimately help restore the lake.

For its part, the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board and Science Advisory Board have been studying nutrient pollution issues in Lake Erie. These projects include comparing the influence of manure versus fertilizer, reviewing various policies on CAFOs and how progress toward nutrient reduction goals can be measured, as well as studying the link between nearshore nutrient enrichment and offshore nutrient declines.

Lake Erie’s nutrient problems aren’t improving, and more needs to be done to help the lake get healthy again.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Understanding and Solving Lake Erie’s Nutrient Problems

By Jeffrey M. Reutter, retired director of Ohio Sea Grant

lake erie landsat
A large phytoplankton bloom in western Lake Erie on Sept. 26, 2017. Credit: Landsat 8/NASA

Lake Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes. Yet it receives the most nutrients of any of the five lakes, from sources like urban and agricultural runoff. In turn, it produces the most fish of any of the lakes. But nutrients also fuel the growth of the wrong kind of algae in Lake Erie, particularly in the western basin of the lake.

These algae, called cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, have contributed to large “dead zones” where there isn’t enough dissolved oxygen for fish and aquatic organisms to survive. The dead zones form in the cold bottom layer of the Central basin between Sandusky, Ohio, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Similar problems occur in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Saginaw Bay, Michigan, and in many other lakes in the US, Canada and around the world.

These problems are not new to Lake Erie. We faced these same problems in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) between the US and Canada was originally signed in April 1972, and allowed US and Canadian scientists to reach agreement that excessive phosphorus loading was driving blooms and dead zones, and set targets for total phosphorus (TP) loads to Lake Erie—11,000 metric tons annually.

TP is composed of particulate phosphorus (PP) attached to soil particles, and dissolved phosphorus, most of which is dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP), or phosphorus dissolved in the water. PP is about 25 percent bioavailable (usable by plants and algae) while DRP is 100 percent bioavailable.

A reduction to a 11,000-metric ton target for total phosphorus under the Agreement was reached in the mid-1980s and the lake responded by becoming the “Walleye Capital of the World.” Coastal economic development and tourism grew rapidly. Today, tourism in the eight Ohio counties that border Lake Erie supports almost 124,000 jobs and has an annual economic value in excess of US$14 billion.

Today, the annual load of TP to Lake Erie is still close to the 11,000-metric ton target, but the amount of DRP in that load has increased by 132 percent. This is the primary driver of harmful algal blooms (HABs) we are seeing today. Elevated numbers of cyanobacteria in the Western Lake Erie basin began to reappear in the late 1990s and have grown rapidly since 2002 with the five worst blooms occurring since 2011.

In May 2015, the Objectives and Targets Task Team of Annex 4 of the 2012 GLWQA issued a final report calling for a 40 percent reduction from 2008 loads in spring TP and DRP loading to the Western basin to address HABs and a 40 percent reduction in Western and Central basin water year loading to address the dead zone.

harmful algal bloom western basin lake erie sept 25 2017
A harmful algal bloom in the western basin of Lake Erie on Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: Aerial Associates Photography Inc. by Zachary Haslick/NOAA-GLERL

These reductions are designed to reduce the severity of HABs, resulting in HABs like the small blooms observed in 2004 and 2012 or smaller, nine years out of 10, or 90 percent of the time. The reductions also are designed to raise the average dissolved oxygen concentration in the dead zone of the Central basin to above 2.0 mg/l (the definition of hypoxic conditions). The US and Canadian governments approved the recommendations in February 2016.

Each of the states surrounding Lake Erie, the province of Ontario, and both countries are currently working on Domestic Action Plans that describe the actions they will take to reach the 40 percent reduction target. A team of scientists prepared a 14-page white paper that summarizes research results and identifies possible strategies to aid managers, decision-makers, and elected officials in developing the best domestic action plans.

The white paper notes that the Maumee and Sandusky rivers are the largest tributary loaders of phosphorus to Lake Erie and the Great Lakes, and 87 percent of this phosphorus is coming from nonpoint sources, of which agriculture is the dominant land use. Mean TP concentrations in these rivers (0.42 mg/l) are about 30 times greater than in the Detroit River (0.014 mg/l), and the Detroit River concentration is not high enough to cause a HAB. While the Detroit is not a major driver for Western basin HABs, the Task Team identified it as one of 14 priority tributaries, and its approximate 2,500-ton load is a contributor to the Central basin dead zone.

Between 2002 and 2013, 70-90 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen discharged from the Maumee River occurred during the 10 largest storm events each year, according to an article in the Journal of Great Lakes Research by David Baker from Heidelberg University and several co-authors.

According to the white paper, it appears that the four most important sets of actions for farmers to reduce nutrient loading are:

  • Soil-test-informed application rates (i.e., following tri-state guidelines and only applying the phosphorus that is needed)
  • inserting fertilizer into the soil, as opposed to applying it above the soil or mulch layer using techniques known as banding or in-furrow with seed
  • working to control erosion (e.g., filter strips, grass waterways, blind inlets)
  • working to manage and minimize the amount of water leaving a field (e.g., drainage water management).

There are three common mechanisms that can be used to promote adoption of specific management practices:

  • Outreach and education to encourage voluntary adoption of recommendations
  • incentives to encourage voluntary adoption of recommendations.
  • regulations to mandate action.

Voluntary adoption of recommended practices will not occur unless outreach focuses specifically on building farmer’s confidence in their ability to implement a set of cost-effective solutions.

Survey data in the Maumee River watershed indicates that about a third of farmers (equivalent to about one-third of the acres in the basin) are engaged in best practices or are willing to do so, another third are hesitant but considering best practices, and the final third are unlikely to change their practices in the short-term (specific numbers depend on the practice). Those least willing to take additional action to reduce nutrient loss tend to be closer to retirement, and/or farm more rented acreage.

Results from ongoing watershed modeling efforts indicate that there are multiple pathways to reach the 40 percent P reduction target by packaging groups of best management practices together. Each of these pathways typically requires a total adoption level of 50 to 75 percent for each of the practices within the package. A good deal of action will be required to reach those adoption levels as current adoption rates for recommended practices range from 20 to 50 percent on average.

Survey data indicate that targeting those individuals who are currently willing to consider the practice or focusing on the larger farms may be sufficient to achieve necessary adoption levels. Farms greater than 50 acres represent 45 percent of the farms, but 97 percent of the total acres. Over half of the land that is planted is rented, raising the importance of conservation on rented and owned land.

Dr. Jeff Reutter is former director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab at Ohio State University. He retired in November 2017 but continues to participate on advisory groups concerned with protecting Lake Erie and the Great Lakes, including serving as US Co-Chair of the Task Team.