Several Great Lakes environmental, conservation and business organizations put the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on notice Monday that it must honor its obligations under the Clean Water Act regarding toxic algal blooms in western Lake Erie, or face legal action.
The harmful algae, which can take over hundreds of square miles on the western end of the lake, annually threatens municipal water supplies, lives of fish and other aquatic species as well as the health, safety and opportunities of the recreating public along the Michigan and Ohio shorelines.
It's why those two states designated portions of Lake Erie an "impaired" water body and outlined proposals to address the problem -- plans the EPA has failed to consider despite a 30-day legally mandated deadline to do so.
The organizations, which want EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to declare the entirety of western Lake Erie as "impaired," said the issue is germane to Buffalo and Western New York even though it sits more than 200 miles away on the Lake Erie's eastern end.
"Their problems can spread around the Great Lakes," said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
From a policy standpoint, Brammeier also said a lot can be learned from the successes in cleaning up the Buffalo Niagara shoreline over the last decades or so.
The problems may be different but the lessons learned from the approaches to dealing with them can be applied in other areas around the Great Lakes, including western Lake Erie, he said.
"It's really hard to see the successes 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, but it's commitment starts now and takes years and possibly decades to work," Brammeier said. "These do not happen without those early commitments."
What's happening in the western basin of Lake Erie is an issue that "everybody in the Great Lakes should be concerned about," said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, who is also the vice chairman and a regional director at the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
"We're totally dependent in Buffalo and Niagara Falls on the headwaters of the Niagara River for our drinking water," Dyster said. "I think we'd be burying our head in the sand if we ignored what was going on in the western basin."
Other reasons for its importance to the Buffalo Niagara region include its sport-fishing industry, which relies on fish that swim from western areas of the lake east, Dyster said.
The ecological balance of the whole of Lake Erie depends on a healthy lake overall, he added.
Although local organizations like Citizens Campaign for the Environment is not a direct party to the case, its leadership supports the move brought by a coalition including the Alliance for the Great Lakes, National Wildlife Federation, Lake Erie Foundation, Ohio Environmental Council, Lake Erie Charter Boat Association as well as two Michigan groups.
Brian Smith, Citizens Campaign's associate executive director, called Lake Erie a "shared resource" that much be protected.
"Toxic algal blooms do not respect state lines, so what happens in the western portion of the lake can ultimately threaten New York’s waters," Smith said. "While it has yet to reach our shores in Western New York, we can’t afford to wait until it does before taking action."
Smith pointed out toxic algae blooms can poison drinking water supplies, kill fish, and hurt water-dependent businesses.
"This clearly meets the definition of impairment," Smith said. "We are counting on state and federal leaders to step up and protect Lake Erie for everyone that depends upon it.”
By defining Lake Erie as an impaired waterbody, as Michigan has, it requires states to come up with solutions to improve conditions by setting pollution limits and policies that will meet them.
Ohio's designation is not lake-wide per se, but declares its shorelines and drinking water intake areas of the lake at Toledo and Oregon, Ohio as "impaired."