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A new roadmap to addressing toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie

A sunny day in Lake Erie. The lake has struggled with algal blooms, largely driven by nutrient pollution in the Maumee River watershed.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
A sunny day in Lake Erie. The lake has struggled with algal blooms, largely driven by nutrient pollution in the Maumee River watershed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved a plan to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen in the Maumee River Watershed – one of the main drivers of persistent toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Ohio, Michigan and Ontario pledged to reduce phosphorus inputs to Lake Erie by 40% by 2025.

The total maximum daily load, or TMDL, will help the large watershed in northwest Ohio get on a so-called “pollution diet.” The TMDL maps how nutrients are getting into the watershed that spans across 18 counties. The U.S. EPA hopes the plan will be just one tool of many.

“Addressing the problem of algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie will take all of us. It will take unflagging commitment and resolve. And it will take time,” said Debra Shore, EPA Region 5 administrator, in a statement.

The plan has garnered controversy. The Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Lucas County Commissioners both insist the plan doesn’t go far enough in its target goals to reduce phosphorus.

What is a TMDL?

TMDLs are meant to be roadmaps to guide water quality efforts, said Christopher Winslow, Director of Ohio Sea Grant at Ohio State University College of Food, Ag and Environmental Sciences. According to the Clean Water Act, states must develop these plans for waterways that are considered impaired, like the Maumee River watershed.

The plan maps how phosphorus and nitrogen are getting into the watershed, through point or non-point sources: Point sources come from a single identifiable source, like discharge pipes or drainage ditches. Non-point source pollutants result from land run-off.

“When it rains, the water moves off the edge of those rivers and streams and creeks and gets into the major river and then ultimately Lake Erie,” Winslow said.

Non-point sources make up the brunt of the pollutants, Winslow said. The Maumee River is surrounded by agricultural land, including more than 70 confined animal feeding operations, also known as factory farms, according to the TMDL plan. Fertilizer and manure can contribute large loads of phosphorus inputs.

“That isn't, by itself, a finger point at ag, it is just we use the landscape for ag and the landscape contributes some of those nutrients,” he said.

A vital waterway

The Maumee River Watershed is one of the largest waterways in the nation to receive a Total Maximum Daily Load plan.

The waterway has long been the center of water quality debates. The Ohio EPA developed the roadmap due to a consent decree, after six years of legal battle with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. The two organizations butted heads on how to best protect the waterway under the Clean Water Act.

It’s received such attention because the river is a main driver of toxic algal blooms, which can harm other aquatic life. In 2014, the blooms made Toledo’s tap water unsafe to drink.

“In all the models and the forecasts and the things that scientists and agencies do to predict how large a bloom will be in Lake Erie, usually the driver or the indicator that bloom is the nutrients coming out of the Maumee River,” Winslow said.

The sun sets over Lake Erie. A boat sits in the middle of the lake.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
The sun sets over Lake Erie, which has long been embroiled in legal debate over the best way to protect the waterway's water quality.

Moving forward

Now that the TMDL has been approved by the U.S. EPA, Winslow said it’s up to state and local agencies to use it as a guidebook. The TMDL is a set of recommendations that smaller municipalities can utilize to address the root of the problem.

“What can we do in our little tiny sub-portion of that bigger Maumee to reduce nutrient loss from here?” Winslow summed up.

Some of its recommendations include continuing to focus on soil management practices, wetland restoration and improving wastewater infrastructure. But, Winslow said the roadmap is subject to change, as the plan is meant to be a “living document.”

“Every year when we learn more and get new data, and we see certain efforts on the landscape, we can go back and say ‘Hey, we need to concentrate more here.’ … So it is very much an adaptive document,” he said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.