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Ohio and Michigan could fall short of goal reducing Lake Erie phosphorus levels by 2025 deadline

Climate Change Lake Acidity Lake Erie Algae
Paul Sancya
FILE - Algae floats on the surface of Lake Erie's Maumee Bay in Oregon, Ohio, Sept. 15, 2017. The Great Lakes have endured a lot the past century, from supersized algae blobs to invasive mussels and bloodsucking sea lamprey that nearly wiped out fish populations. Now, another danger: They, and other big lakes around the world, might be getting more acidic, which could make them less hospitable for some fish and plants.

Ohio and Michigan aren’t on track to meet the phosphorus reduction goal in Lake Erie by 2025, and research from the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Ohio Environmental Council found that the states will need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

In 2015, Ohio Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne signed a collaborative agreement committing to reduce the levels of phosphorus entering the Western Basin of Lake Erie by 40% over a 10-year period.

In the new study, researchers found that Ohio and Michigan need to invest as much as $315 million collectively in agricultural conservation education and practices in order to meet the goal by the 2025 deadline.

“We've been at these programs for decades now and have had relatively minimal successes in terms of getting phosphorus to trend downwards,” Tom Zimnicki, agricultural & restoration policy director with the Alliance, said. “Long term, I think we're going to continue to see algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie... and I think that's going to that's going to be exacerbated by the effects of climate change which are making those waters warmer.”

Research and findings

The report analyzed federal data to better understand how much each state currently invests in conservation practices and programming, Zimnicki said. They then used models and simulations to analyze the effectiveness of current in-field practices, like cover crop and crop rotation, and the need for improvement.

“From our results, [it’s] pretty much impossible to meet these reduction targets just using these annual in field practices,” he said. “The models show that we need to have more structural practices, thousands of additional acres of several different practices, in order to achieve those reduction goals.”

With the study, Zimnicki said they intend to hold legislators in both states accountable and push them to reduce phosphorous levels as promised.

In 2021, Ohio invested more than $100 million in federal and state spending in conservation projects, with $55 million coming from the state’s H2Ohio program, according to the report. Michigan invested more than $7 million across federal, state and local funds.

But the report finds that Ohio and Michigan need to need to increase conservation spending by $170 - $250 million and $40 - $65 million respectively each year to meet water quality standards by 2025.

“The H2Ohio program in Ohio has obviously invested a lot into wetland restoration throughout the Western basin of wetland construction,” Zimnicki said. “The report showed that we're going to keep doing more of that and invest more into that, but those are the types of investments that are really going to be critical to meeting those goals.”

Harm of algal blooms

Algal blooms are created by excessive amounts of phosphorus that enter waterways, and they can become toxic, decreasing water quality and presenting danger to humans and animals. In 2014, half-a-million Toledo residents were left unable to drink and cook with their water due to toxins from algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Blooms are common in Lake Erie’s Western Basin due to water temperature and the amounts of nutrients flowing into the lake from the surrounding area. Phosphorus enters Lake Erie and other waterways when it rains, and excess fertilizer and manure on farms forms phosphorus-rich runoff.

According to the report, phosphorus runoff from the agricultural industry contributes upwards of 89 percent of the annual total phosphorus load in the Western Basin

“There are really two main, kind of, sources or buckets that we can think about for phosphorus,” Zimnicki said. “One is point sources. The big ones are municipal wastewater treatment plants, and then non-point sources, which in this case and in Lake Erie. The dominant non-point source is agriculture.”

While there is little risk of algal blooms from Lake Erie’s Western Basin spreading to the rest of the lake, Zimnicki said there is already evidence of algal blooms in other water ways that flow into other parts of the Great Lakes region.

“We’re seeing algal blooms in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior … and we're seeing these blooms in inland waters too,” he said. “So, I think that trend is going to continue.”

Barriers for farmers

For many farmers, it can be challenging to adopt different conservation practices, such as diversifying crop rotations due to the impact on cost and profit, Zimnicki said.

“When we push them into diversifying that rotation, it isn't always easy to find markets for those other crops that they're growing,” he said. “So, figuring out how do we address like the supply chain connection between growers and consumers has been a huge barrier.”

Additionally, farmers may not always see conservation practices adopted by their peers, which Zimnicki said can make them hesitant to do so out of fear of standing out.

“Farmers sometimes lack this social network around them that kind of pushes and enables them to do something different,” he said. “So, it is, as you can imagine, jarring if you were the only person on the block, so to speak, that's doing something different.”

Zimnicki recommended farmers to share their reservations about conservation practices with local conservation organization to ensure their concerns are being addressed and reflected in state policy.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.