THE BLOG

We're Finally Taking Steps to Improve Lake Erie's Water Quality

06/23/2015 06:06 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 05:59 EDT
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Written by Rebecca Dolson, Specialist, Freshwater Policy

Ontario and the states of Ohio and Michigan have reached an agreement to reduce the amount of phosphorous entering the western basin of Lake Erie by 40 per cent. Phosphorous is a key nutrient in water, but when present at high concentrations can lead to harmful algal blooms which can impact water quality, ecosystem health, fisheries, tourism and property values. The Council of Great Lakes Governors met on June 12 and 13 in Quebec City, where it was announced an agreement had been signed.

The province and states agreed to reduce total phosphorous and dissolved reactive phosphorous entering the Western Basin of Lake Erie by 40 per cent by 2025, with an interim goal of reaching 20 per cent reduction by 2020. Through this agreement, the Government of Ontario hopes that Lake Erie will return to a state where the water is drinkable, swimmable, and fishable -- the premise of Ontario's Great Lakes Strategy. The agreement also suggests the province and states will develop specific implementation plans to help achieve the reduction targets.

Lake Erie's degrading water quality became international news once again in 2011 when the largest algae bloom ever recorded extended over 5,000 square kilometres of the lake's surface. In February 2014 the International Joint Commission (IJC) released a report that outlined phosphorous targets for Lake Erie and assessed the biggest phosphorous contributors in the lake's watershed. In their report, the IJC found that over the last decade concentrations of dissolved reactive phosphorous (a portion of total phosphorous that is readily available to algae) have increased in Lake Erie. Unlike the water quality problems of the 1970s, phosphorous is primarily entering Lake Erie from non-point, diffuse sources such as runoff from agricultural farms, waste water systems, and urban storm water. This makes the problem particularly hard to address.

In order to reach the ambitious target of 40 per cent phosphorous reduction, Ontario will need to pursue new land management practices for both rural and urban areas. The government will also need to invest in research and monitoring to assess the progress being made to reach the target. WWF-Canada looks forward to seeing the final details of the reduction strategy and applauds the Ontario government for taking this step to protect and restore Lake Erie.

This new agreement will build on the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), signed with the United States. GLWQA Annex 4 commits Environment Canada and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop objectives for Lake Erie phosphorous concentrations and loading targets by February 2016. It also commits federal government agencies to develop phosphorous reduction strategies and domestic action plans by 2018.

WWF-Canada supports a vision of all of Canada's freshwater in good ecological condition by 2025, and has been working to assess the health of watersheds across Canada. We have recently assessed the health of the rivers and streams that flow into the Great Lakes, encompassing the Great Lakes watershed. We're excited to share those results with you soon!

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