February 27, 2014 at 11:48 pm

Report: Lake Erie's health threatened, needs nutrient diet

In a 100-page report released Thursday, environmental officials documented the slow decline of Lake Erie. (Warren Dillaway / AP)

The quality of water in Lake Erie has been declining for a decade and decisive government action is needed. That action, according to the International Joint Commission, could include new restrictions on farms in the lake’s watershed.

In a 100-page report released Thursday, IJC officials documented the slow decline of the lake stemming from a host of factors — a list that includes nutrient overloading.

“Lake Erie is once again severely threatened,” the report reads. “The recent accelerating decline of this lake, manifested as impaired water quality, massive, summer-long algal blooms, hypoxia and fish kills, has focused binational attention on the need for urgent actions to reduce external inputs of phosphorus.

“While Lake Erie’s health suffers from multiple stressors, the rising proportion of dissolved phosphorus is seen as the primary cause of this decline.”

For years, the western half of Lake Erie has been plagued during the summer months by massive blooms of green algae. Nutrients, such as phosphorus, are the driving factor and they’re often found in fertilizers used in farming. The nutrients are carried by runoff from fields into local streams and carried along until they reach Lake Erie.

The resulting algal blooms affect recreational boating, swimming and fishing in the lake’s western half.

“We commend the U. S. and Canada for their work and investments to help Lake Erie, but it’s time for governments at all levels to put the lake on a diet by setting targets and achieving real reductions in nutrient loads,” said Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the IJC. The binational organization was created more than 100 years ago to settle disputes between the two countries on issues involving the Great Lakes and borders.

To reduce phosphorus targets, IJC officials are calling on Michigan and Ohio to designate the western portion of Lake Erie as impaired waters. It would clear the way for the states to restrict how much phosphorus reaches Lake Erie.

Steps that could be taken would include:

■ Guidelines for how agricultural operations apply phosphorus to their fields and steps for controlling runoff.

■ Increasing commitment to best management practices.

■ Increasing the use of regulatory measures, such as linking crop insurance to conservation efforts.

■ Banning the application of manure, bio-solids and commercial fertilizer on frozen or snow-covered ground in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ontario.

■ Calling on local governments to increase the use of green infrastructure in storm water management.

■ Placing restrictions on the sale of fertilizer containing phosphorus in Ontario, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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