Cleveland Plain Dealer
Often dubbed the “Walleye Capital of the World,” Lake Erie has a prominent place in the hearts of Midwesterners. This southernmost Great Lake has shores in several states, including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and the Canadian province of Ontario. It is the source of drinking water for 12 million people, and it provides 1/3 of the tourism and travel revenue for the state of Ohio. However, as the shallowest and most industrialized Great Lake, Erie is also most susceptible to threats of pollution.
Harmful algal blooms have plagued lakeside communities in recent years, coating the lake in green scum, impairing the recreation economy, and threatening drinking water. Some algae even produce microcystin bacteria, which is more poisonous than cyanide and can cause liver damage and other ailments in humans and animals. The science is clear: Lake Erie’s algae problem is caused by excess phosphorus pollution, nearly 90% of which comes from the booming agricultural industry upstream. Manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is leaching into the water at growing rates, and it will continue to harm local communities and economies until adequate policies are in place.
In 2014, a massive algal bloom shut down Toledo’s drinking water supply to 400,000 people for three days, and the National Guard was deployed to bring in bottled water.
In the summer of 2017, ELPC and Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie sued the U.S. EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect Lake Erie communities. A federal judge agreed, and the Ohio EPA declared western Lake Erie officially “impaired” in 2018, which should have prompted a cleanup plan from the state-level EPA as mandated under the Clean Water Act. However, Ohio EPA has yet to provide an effective phosphorus-reduction plan.
In February 2019, ELPC and the Board of Commissioners of Lucas County, Ohio filed a new related lawsuit against the Trump Administration EPA. We challenged its approval of an Ohio EPA decision in June 2018 to make western Lake Erie a “low” priority for action under the Clean Water Act. The Ohio EPA has admitted it lacks an effective alternative plan for reducing phosphorus pollution into western Lake Erie. As a remedy, we asked the court to oversee a meaningful compliance plan that includes progress reports and a timeline for phosphorus pollution reductions.
ELPC is partnering with local researchers to examine sources of pollution along the Maumee River basin, stretching into Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. This watershed is overrun with massive industrial agriculture, which contributes excessive fertilizer and animal waste into the waterways connected to Lake Erie. Read more about this work here.
Building off of our research analysis, ELPC is identifying a range of science-based policy solutions (including market-based approaches) that can reduce agricultural runoff. Our advocacy team will continue to intervene in state regulatory processes and push for smart policies that can improve water quality in Lake Erie.