Environmental groups call on province, feds to fight Lake Erie algae

Algae Bloom Photo by Shutterstock/smspsy

Three environmental groups called on the Ontario and federal governments to take action against the algae blooms growing in Lake Erie.

The call to action came after the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced its forecast for the 2020 algae bloom season on Lake Erie. The administration predicts that this year’s algae bloom will have a severity level of 4.5 with the potential to reach 5.5. On a scale out of 10, this sits as a moderate bloom—2019’s forecast reached a 7.3 rating—but it is not without its concerns.

“In 2014, when the Toledo, Ohio water supply and the water supply for Pelee Island, Ont. were made toxic by the bloom and shut down for several days, that was projected as a six,” says Kelsey Scarfone, the water program manager for Environmental Defence, one of the groups that called on the governments to take action.

“That’s a sad state of affairs to be in when we’re saying, ‘No, this moderate algae bloom is only going to be somewhat terrible.’ When really, we ideally want a very insignificant bloom to no bloom at all.”

Algae blooms are caused by phosphorus pollution infiltrating the lake, typically in the form of runoff from agricultural lands. The blooms pose a serious threat to the lake’s ecosystem, tainting water supplies and choking out fish. They also have a financial impact on fisheries and tourism—no one wants to visit a beach caked in green sludge.

According to a 2019 study, if the algae blooms are allowed to continue unhindered, it could be costly for the Canadian Lake Erie basin—upwards of $297 million per year. If no government action is taken, the study predicts costs will hit $5.8 billion by 2050.

In 2018, the Ontario and federal governments committed to reducing phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie through the Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie. The goal of the plan is to cut phosphorus off at the source, Scarfone says, “A lot of interventions need to take place in the phosphorus that’s coming off of agricultural lands. That’s the biggest source for sure in Canada.”

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Scarfone adds that many farmers are working hard to implement best practices to reduce phosphorus runoff. What the government needs to do is identify hotspots. “Not all soils and not all land conditions are created equal across the province, and so you have higher contributions from different areas,” she says. “We know the Thames River is certainly a hot spot.”

Although the plan is finalized, the implementation guide on how the plan should be rolled out has yet to be released. Scarfone says it was expected over a year ago, in February 2019.

In June 2019, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, along with his U.S. counterparts Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, committed to a 20 per cent reduction in Lake Erie’s phosphorus pollution by 2020, and a 40 per cent reduction by 2025. Ontario has yet to achieve its 2020 goal.

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Michigan and Ohio, on the other hand, have already implemented domestic action plans. Ohio has gone as far as setting aside $172 million over two years to support farmers implementing best management practices on farm fields and reconstructing wetlands to reduce phosphorus runoff.

To keep the Ontario and federal governments accountable, Environmental Defence, along with Freshwater Future, and the Canadian Freshwater Alliance—advocacy groups committed to protecting Canada’s freshwater supplies—have published a joint statement calling on the governments to tackle the algae blooms before it’s too late.

“We have a great plan,” Scarfone says. “We need to see that we’re making progress, of which [the governments] have not demonstrated to date.”

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