In 2011, a massive algal bloom struck Lake Erie, extending from the Michigan shoreline in the west to past the waterfront of Cleveland. The toxins within the blooms far exceeded recommended levels for recreational contact. The following year, drought conditions diminished the harmful algal blooms. Then, last year, they returned in a disruptive way, though not at the record levels of two years earlier.
All of this has triggered responses, among others, from the farming community, state legislators, researchers and members of Congress. On Thursday, the International Joint Commission, a panel comprised of three Americans and three Canadians designed to oversee stewardship of shared waters, issued a report and recommendations on the algal blooms afflicting Lake Erie. The report, A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms, should serve as a vehicle for bringing focus, direction and momentum to addressing a grave threat to the lake.
The report calls for Ohio and Michigan to declare the waters of western Lake Erie impaired from nutrient pollution. That would set in motion the establishment of a Total Daily Maximum Load, involving analysis of the problem and development of a plan for meeting the goal.
The commission framed the way forward, identifying areas of priority. Take the Maumee River, at the western end of the Lake Erie basin, the conduit for 43 percent of the nutrient pollution flowing into the lake. Vast acres of farm land drain into the river. Since the 2011 blooms, many interested parties have mobilized, including agricultural interests. What the commission invites is improved coordination of these efforts, or a platform for substantial action.
The Detroit River represents something of a puzzle. No question, phosphorous flows down the river and into Lake Erie, the city wastewater treatment plant contributing significantly. How much phosphorous the river actually contributes to the problem remains uncertain. The pursuit of a Total Daily Maximum Load would bring the necessary clarity to the equation.
A third area of priority involves the Toledo harbor. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges the harbor annually, facilitating the movement of large ships. The collected sediment is then dumped in the open waters of Lake Erie. The concern long has been that the method of disposal harms the lake, aggravating the presence of phosphorus, contributing to the toxic algal blooms.
The Corps dumped 1.1 million cubic yards of such dredged sediment into the lake last year.
In a 2010 letter to the Corps, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency argued for ending the dumping. The Corps has cited the economic need. The commission proposes arriving at a clear understanding of the impact, and looking at alternative ways to dispose of the sediment.
Practically everyone salutes Lake Erie, as a treasured natural resource, place for recreation and economic engine. Now is a moment for Gov. John Kasich and other Ohio officials to prove true. The International Joint Commission has defined the urgency. Take the lead, and Ohio would put the pressure on Michigan and Canada to follow. The toxic algal blooms represent no less than a loud cry for help.
The Toledo harbor isn’t the only place where the state EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have clashed. They differ over the proposed dumping of dredged sediments from the Cuyahoga River into the waters of Lake Erie — for the first time in four decades. The Corps makes the business argument. The agency worries about the detrimental impact.
As the Toledo situation suggests, this is a time for examining alternative methods of disposal, the lake vulnerable, the premium on its restoration. The state EPA will hold a public hearing on Thursday covering the question of dumping the Cuyahoga sediments. It starts at 4:30 p.m., at the Martin Luther King Jr. Branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Friends of the lake would do well to make their presence felt.