03/04/2016 02:50 EST | Updated 03/05/2017 05:12 EST

How To Save Lake Erie

Written by Rebecca Dolson, Specialist, Freshwater Policy

Over the last decade we've seen an alarming decrease in the water quality of Lake Erie. The biggest issue facing the lake right now is the increasing number and size of harmful algal blooms -- which are caused largely from an excess amount of the nutrient phosphorous flowing into the lake.

Poor water quality, especially harmful algal blooms, jeopardizes our health, our drinking water supplies, and the aquatic community. But now these issues are finally being addressed. The United States and Canada recently agreed to binational targets to reduce the amount of phosphorous entering the western and central basins of Lake Erie under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA, 2012). It's a positive first step towards a cleaner, healthier Lake Erie.

WWF-Canada contributed to the development of the final targets in late 2015, when a collective of Canadian and U.S. environmental organizations provided recommendations on the proposed binational targets, which have now been finalized.

Now, the real work begins. The next phase to improve the health of Lake Erie will be to create and implement what's called Domestic Action Plans (DAPs). These will guide how the U.S. and Canada achieve the phosphorous reduction targets that were set. The development and implementation of these action plans will help to improve the health and condition of Lake Erie - which would be one of the biggest conservation success stories of this decade in the Great Lakes region.

Improving the health of Lake Erie is an important steps towards WWF-Canada's aim to see all waters in good condition by 2025. This includes knowing, on a national scale, the health of our waters and the threats they face. The Northern Lake Erie sub-watershed received a water quality score of Fair in WWF's recent Watershed Report. Results for phosphorous in western basin of Lake Erie are particularly concerning, because levels were found to exceed water quality guidelines in 70 per cent of samples between 2008 and 2012.

The report supports findings from the GLWQA Nutrient Subcommittee that the development of the domestic action plans should focus on immediate action in priority watersheds in the western basin of Lake Erie, such as Ontario's Thames River.

Setting targets and taking effective measures to reduce phosphorous loading will improve the health of Lake Erie and its tributaries.

One part of the lake, however, has been left out. The targets apply to the western and central basins of the lake, but the agreement deferred setting targets for the eastern Lake Erie basin until more research is conducted. Those final phosphorus targets need to be set before the lake is really on the road to improvement.

Phosphorous is an important measure of water quality. It's a natural nutrient found in freshwater systems, but it's a delicate balance. Too much phosphorous can promote the growth of harmful (toxic) algal blooms, which pose risks to drinking water supplies and to the health of the entire food web. Setting a goal for the amount of phosphorous entering Lake Erie from our watersheds helps to make sure we keep Lake Erie healthy.

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