Lake Erie is in such bad shape, governments need to get tough and demand better with “mandatory” standards to improve water quality, an international agency says.
The lake that runs hundreds of kilometres along the edge of Southwestern Ontario, supplying drinking water to much of the region including London, has been plagued in recent years by everything from monster toxic algae blobs — one, as large as Prince Edward Island — to so-called dead zones where the water is so deprived of oxygen, nothing lives.
In a progress report Wednesday by the International Join Commission (IJC) on how the Great Lakes are doing, Erie — hemmed in by North America’s industrial heartland and a vast agricultural belt on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border — remains in the worst condition.
“Water quality in western and central Lake Erie is unacceptable. The commitment to reduce nutrient inputs by 40 per cent is laudable but mandatory controls are essential to ensure success,” the IJC said in a summary of its report.
The IJC, created by the Canadian and U.S. governments, jointly manages their shared Great Lakes waters.
The nutrient input implicated in Erie’s poor health is research-speak for farm run-off, including animal waste, and industrial waste that flows into the Great Lakes, causing a spike in phosphorous levels and creating large algae blooms that suck oxygen out of the water, killing aquatic life.
Municipal sewage treatment plants are another culprit, the sewers that feed them often overwhelmed by heavy rains that force raw or only partially treated human waste into Erie’s tributaries, including the Thames River in London.
One fallout has been explosive growth in toxic algae blobs, a menace not just to Erie’s tourism industry and its commercial fishery, but to drinking water intakes that supply shoreline and inland communities.
“Concern about algae blooms is a recurring one . . . it is a large problem and will take some time to address,” Frank Bavacqua, san IJC spokesperson, said.
Erie is unique among the Great Lakes in that it’s shallow and the area around it intensely urbanized, surrounded by farms, industries and cities, he said.
While there’s been progress to reduce pollutants in recent years, more needs to be done. Instead of relying on voluntary measures by agriculture and industry, the IJC says governments have to get tough and pass laws demanding fewer pollutants flow into the lake.
“There needs to be heavy lifting done to develop action plans,” Bavacqua said. “That will take some investment and major changes.”
The IJC report says Erie’s water quality, along with chemicals in the lakes and the spread of invasive species, remains one of the biggest problems facing the Great Lakes.
Calling the Erie water-quality problem “unacceptable,” the report says “new mandatory protections should supplement voluntary initiatives to reduce phosphorus loadings.”
In the last 10 to 15 years governments at all levels have offered incentive-laden voluntary programs to reduce nutrients flowing into the Great Lakes. That include funding best management practices on farms. But the growth of the blooms in the last 10 years indicates that’s not working.
The IJC points to stiffer action, such as an Ohio law that requires farms there to reduce animal waste from sitting on frozen or saturated ground as a good start. Animal feed is also a source of nutrients, the runoff of which feeds Erie’s algae blooms.
The report also pointed to invasive species, aquatic and others in the broader eco-system, as a serious issue in the Great Lakes basin. Invasive phragmites — huge, reed-like plants — and Asian longhorned beetles and purple loosestrife are examples of how the problem has grown from more than just the zebra mussel, a tiny mollusc that found its way into the lakes in freighter ballast water and then took off, carpeting many areas and fouling water intake systems.
One hope for Erie’s turnaround is an agreement by Ontario and Ohio, which borders the lake on its southern shore, to reduce phosphorus entering the lake by 40 per cent by 2025. They pledge to have a comprehensive plan in place by early 2018.
That would mean the annual spring phosphorus load into Erie would have to drop by 3,500 metric tonnes, including 200 metric tonnes from the Ontario side and the rest from the Ohio side.
The toxic algae that phosphorus fuels pollutes beaches and harbours and, at times, has been so thick it has choked boat motors.
Two summers ago, algae toxins became a public health hazard for 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, and Pelee Island when systems supplying them with drinking water from Erie had to be shut down.
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About Lake Erie
— Fourth-largest of the Great Lakes in area, smallest in water volume
— Rimmed by Southwestern Ontario and four U.S. states
— Heavy pollution pressures from industrial and agricultural heartland around it
— Persistent problems include toxic algae blooms and so-called ‘dead zones’ depleted of oxygen