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The Bloom is not off the Lake Yet; New Ohio Measures to Reduce Erie Phosphorus Levels  

By Jamila Odeh*

Harmful algal blooms, composed of cyanobacteria, can produce toxins that threaten human and ecological health.[1] Harmful algal blooms have long been an issue in Lake Erie where shallow waters, sunlight, and phosphorus runoff from agricultural lands fuel cyanobacterial growth.[2] Concern is warranted, given that nearly twelve million people drink Lake Erie water.[3] In addition, the potential economic impact of algal blooms is significant. For example, it is estimated that the 2011 harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie cost roughly seventy-one million dollars, including considerations like property value, decreased tourism, and emergency water treatment measures.[4] A crucial approach to prevention is addressing phosphorus levels in the lake, and particularly minimizing phosphorus-rich agricultural runoff.

On February 8, 2017, the State of Ohio released an implementation framework to aid in the reduction of phosphorus in Lake Erie, a year ahead of schedule.[5] The framework was designed to bring Ohio closer to the goal of a forty percent decrease in Lake Erie phosphorus levels by 2018.[6] That goal was laid out in the Western Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement, formed between Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario.[7] The Agreement is an effort to advance mutual interest in moving towards the proposed targets for water quality specified in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which also set a forty percent reduction for the Western Lake Erie Basin as a binational objective.[8]

The new Ohio implementation framework purports to establish an adaptive management process, which will allow it flexibility to develop alongside advances in science and technology.[9] In addition, it sets out a comprehensive monitoring plan, protocol for tracking water quality, and a system to identify priority watersheds.[10] The head of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg College, a congressionally commissioned research institution, summed up the framework up as a system of enhanced monitoring.[11] It takes an important step, because it will allow fast identification of a problem. Yet, the framework may do little in the way of prevention.

The trouble with the new implementation framework is that it is more suggestion than regulation, especially where the framework addresses agricultural runoff.[12] A variety of Ohio state agencies are responsible for implementing the framework.[13] Attention to the issue of agricultural runoff is seated with the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA).[14] This portion of the framework largely features permissive language. For example, it states the ODA will develop a certification for farmers “voluntarily implementing best management practices,” consider development of programs including “incentives for water detention/retention structures,” encourage the establishment of a streamlined process” for federal and state funding programs, and “encourage an assessment of scoring criteria for Farm Bill program eligibility.[15]

The International Joint Commission, a reporting body for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, released a draft of its triennial progress report on water quality this January.[16] The report emphasized that adequately reducing phosphorus to levels necessary to prevent toxic algal blooms in western Lake Erie is unlikely without “enforceable standards to supplement voluntary stewardship.”[17] Voluntary programs have done little to reduce phosphorus pollution in the past.[18] This is a problem where corporate agricultural operations are concerned, as it is unlikely that there will be any change from ordinary operations.[19] Agricultural runoff is a main source of the pollution that sustains toxic blooms, and the framework simply forsakes to establish mandatory programs necessary to improve water quality.[20]

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

*Jamila Odeh is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. She can be reached at

[1] Nutrient Pollution: Harmful Algal Blooms, Envtl. Protection Agency (Jan. 23, 2017),

[2] Id.; Lake Erie Algae, Heidelberg U., (last visited Mar. 5, 2017).

[3] Lake Erie Algae Blooms: Polluting Our Drinking Water, Alliance for the Great Lakes, (last visited Mar. 5, 2017).

[4] Econ. Consulting & Tech., Inc. & Veritas Econ. Consulting, LLC, Economic Benefits of Reducing Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie, (Oct. 2015),

[5] Press Release, State of Ohio Releases Framework to Reduce Nutrients in Lake Erie Basin, Ohio Envtl. Prot. Agency, (Feb. 8, 2017),



[6] Western Lake Erie Basin Collaborative Implementation Framework: A Pathway for Transitioning Ohio to a Grater Lakes Water Quality Agreement Domestic Action Plan, Ohio Envtl. Protection Agency, (Feb. 2017), at 1,


[7] Id.

[8] Id.; U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency & Env’t Canada Inquiry Ctr., Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Feb. 12, 2013),

[9] Western Lake Erie Basin Collaborative Implementation Framework, supra note 6, at 1.

[10] Id. at 8-10.

[11] Kevin Niedermier, Ohio Releases its Lake Erie Phosphorus-Reduction Plan a Year Early WKSU (Feb. 9, 2017),; National Center for Water Quality Research, Heidelberg U., (last visited Mar. 5, 2017).

[12] Id.

[13] Western Lake Erie Basin Collaborative Implementation Framework, supra note 6, at 5.

[14] Id. at 5, 14.

[15] Id. at 14 (emphasis added).

[16] Int’l Joint Comm’n, First Triennial Assessment of Progress on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Jan. 2017),


[17] Press Release, Ohio Plan Fails to Address Main Cause of Toxic Algae in Lake Erie, Envtl. Law & Policy Ctr. (Feb. 8, 2017),; Int’l Joint Comm’n, supra note 16, at 44.

[18] Ohio Plan Fails to Address Main Cause of Toxic Algae in Lake Erie, Envtl. L. & Pol’y Ctr. (Feb. 8, 2017),

[19] Id.

[20] Ohio Lake Erie Plan Falls Short, Alliance for the Great Lakes (Feb. 10, 2017),


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