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NRDC: Saving a Great Lake

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The mouth of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, where it flows into Lake Erie.

Q&A with NRDC attorney Thom Cmar.

Why does Lake Erie hold such importance to environmentalists?

One of the seminal moments in the history of environmental law was when the Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire in the late 1960s. That event, as much as any other, created the awareness that we needed a more stringent, science-based framework to address water and air pollution. At the time, Lake Erie was widely declared to be dead, because it had massive inputs of pollution from factories and wastewater treatment plants. (See "Lake Erie Death Watch.") The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 in part to address that problem, and it worked, but it wasn’t a perfect success. In the law, Congress set a goal that we would stop discharging pollution into U.S. waterways by 1985. That obviously didn’t happen. A lot of what I do today, what NRDC does today, is try to get closer and closer to that perpetually receding horizon. We’ve made huge progress in dealing with these major dischargers.

Then why have the problems returned?

You’ve got urban runoff from a whole series of cities around Lake Erie’s western basin, from Detroit to Toledo. Plus, while their wastewater treatment plants are discharging less phosphorus than they used to, they’re still discharging significant amounts. And, in that area, we’ve got a huge concentration of agriculture, which is much more difficult to regulate.

Feature Story: Lake Erie Death Watch

Why is that?

The Clean Water Act, as a political compromise, does not apply to agricultural runoff. That means, in order to reduce agricultural pollution, the government has to resort to things like providing money to farmers to engage in better practices. But the programs are voluntary, and the bad actors are unlikely to enroll unless the incentives are so high that they become cost-prohibitive. You can’t solve this problem simply by throwing money at it -- ultimately, farmers need to decide on their own that better practices make sense.

What are the most critical steps that need to be taken to ensure Lake Erie survives?

Federal and state agencies, working together, need to determine the baseline amount of phosphorus that can be safely discharged into Lake Erie, then work backwards from there to identify how to reduce pollution to that amount. The Clean Water Act provides authority to do this, and it’s starting to happen in other places like the Chesapeake Bay after years of effort (and lawsuits). Once you have a baseline, creative approaches to get below that safe level could include programs where some farmers would pay for the right to continue their operations as is, while others would reduce their nutrient pollution (and might be able to get money for doing so). It can also set the basis for progressively more stringent limits on phosphorus when major dischargers are issued permits. And it creates a sense of metrics—here is where we need to go.

What are the chances of that happening in a political climate adverse to regulation?

Look, you can see these algae blooms from space. There’s no hiding from the problem and people throughout the region are starting to get concerned, no matter what their politics are. It’s true that there are active efforts in Congress to repeal even the basic protections we have had for decades, which have led to progress that many people now take for granted. If we’re going to succeed in our goal of fully restoring and revitalizing our natural resources, we have to be able to save places like Lake Erie. We have to be able to strengthen environmental and public health protections and not roll them back to the bad old days when the Cuyahoga River burned on the edge of the Great Lakes. And make no mistake: that’s what many in Congress are talking about doing right now, and Lake Erie will suffer for it.

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Lake Erie is in trouble. Lake Erie is drinking water for 11 million people. A recent study by United States Geological Survey(USGS) shows that wastewater plants are still a major contibutor of phosphorous to Lake Erie. The Detroit Wastewater plant is one of the largest in the US, From Jan. 1 thru Aug. 5, 2011 Detroit's wasewater plant discharged 28.5 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Lake Erie. Detroit needs to look at the amount of phosphorus discharge from treated water and needs to substantially reduce overflows for the sake of Lake Erie. A newer source of phosphorous to Lake Erie is Confined Animal Feeding Operations(CAFO's). The land applied manure from these operations now comprises over 15% of the total phosphrous into Lake Erie - as source that for the most part did not exist in the 1960's. We need to quantify the sources of phosphorous - find the most feasile ways to get the reductions - measure that there are reductions. One no brainer is not to allow the application of fertilizers and manure on frozen ground. Ohio allows this and should not. In addition there should be a Total Maximum Daily Load assessment in the Maumee which discharges about 50% of all the phosphorous to Lake Erie. Let's get a plant of action and get phosphorous reductions ASAP..
Thank you for an excellent article. To bring public awareness to this problem. It is a very sad situation. If I may correct one item from the artical The author wrote “What are the most critical steps that need to be taken to ensure Lake Erie survives? Federal and state agencies, working together, need to determine the baseline amount of phosphorus that can be safely discharged into Lake Erie” The Lake Erie LaMP Management Committee has set and agreed to indicator endpoints for total phosphorus concentrations. This information can be found in the following link.
Politics and budgets aside, it's not just Lake Erie's future--and Ohio's economy--that's in jeopardy from pollutants, climate change, and more. Erie is just one manifestation of the growing threat to water across the country and around the world. It's time for politicians and policymakers to wake up and pay attention to the fact that our nation's water resource--and the livlihoods and life it provides--is finite. We must address the problems now. --Susan J. Marks (author, Aqua Shock: Water in Crisis [Bloomberg Press])