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U.S.-Canada pact on Lake Erie phosphorus runoff bodes well for Buffalo area

Located on the eastern and deeper end of Lake Erie, Buffalo has been insulated from the lake’s most acute and visible environmental problems: toxic blue-green algae and oxygen-starved “dead zones.”

But Western New York still has something to gain from an agreement struck in February between the United States and Canada that calls for reducing phosphorus getting into Lake Erie by 40 percent.

The phosphorus – from agricultural and urban runoff and wastewater overflows – feeds uncontrolled algal growth.

“If it were allowed to fester, it could become a problem for us,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, a regional director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

The problems are real:

• In August 2014, a half-million people in the Toledo, Ohio, area lost their drinking water for a weekend after toxic blue-green algae inundated the city’s supply system.

• Shoreline recreation opportunities are nonexistent during the summertime in places such as Sandusky and Put-in-Bay in Ohio and Chatham-Kent, Ont. The lake waters turn into a stinky, pea green toxic mix spread wide enough to be seen from space. The toxic algae can burn the skin, cause intestinal distress, injure the nervous system and kill pets that come into contact with it.

• When algal blooms die, they decompose, sucking oxygen out of the water. That creates large dead zones in the lake. Little aquatic life can survive there, leading to fish kills and a death knell for recreational fishing opportunities.

Studies show the highest phosphorus levels often come during wet spring months. Washed into the relatively shallow western basin of Lake Erie, it percolates during the warm summer months, spawning large algal blooms. Some of those blooms, most of which are concentrated from Toledo to Cleveland, turn toxic.

In 2013, for the first time, the toxic algae cropped up just 90 miles from Buffalo at Presque Isle Bay in Erie, Pa.

And last summer, federal officials reported that the lake endured its largest algal bloom in this century, eclipsing the previous record set in 2011.

“Even if we’re not having the hazardous algal blooms here, that affects fish populations in the entire lake,” said Nate Drag, a Buffalo watershed project coordinator for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “If you have areas with no life, that puts those populations at risk.”

Jill M. Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, called the 40 percent reduction target “a good first step” but said more work is required. “Without immediate and meaningful action, even communities in the eastern basin could be at risk,” Jedlicka said. “Lake Erie is a relatively small and vulnerable freshwater system that is suffering from a death by a thousand cuts.”

Dramatic reductions in phosphorus loading into the lake was the aim of the International Joint Commission’s nonbinding Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority report published in 2014. The IJC recommended that the two countries agree to plans to reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into the lake before 2018 to stop the growing problem.

Officials from the two countries said the pact is designed to reduce the amount of dead zones in the central basin of the lake along with harmful algal blooms, nuisance algae and other environmental threats that come with higher levels of phosphorus. The two countries agreed four years ago through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to update its targeted reductions of phosphorus into the lake by the end of this month.

“The first step in our urgent work together to protect Lake Erie from toxic algae, harmful algal blooms and other effects of nutrient runoff, is to establish these important phosphorus limits,” said Gina McCarthy, an EPA administrator.

How will the reductions be achieved?

“That’s a pretty interesting question,” said Raj Bejankiwar, an International Joint Commission scientist. “That’s the biggest challenge.”

It’s going to happen by targeting a few key watersheds – like the 4 million-acre Maumee River watershed – and pushing for reducing runoff from farms and upgrading wastewater-treatment systems.

The specifics, Bejankiwar said, will come over the next two years in the “domestic action plans” put forth by both nations.