BY GARRET ELLISON
LANSING, MI — On the cusp of what’s expected to be another sizable summer algae bloom in Lake Erie, the state of Michigan has released a plan for improving the lake that critics say doesn’t do enough to reduce nutrient-laden runoff from farms.
The state calls the 23-page Domestic Action Plan for Lake Erie released June 13 a roadmap to help Michigan meet its joint pledge with Ohio and Canada to reduce phosphorus entering the lake by 40 percent over the next eight years.
Phosphorus runoff from farms, sewage plants and other sources of nutrient pollution is fueling disgusting and dangerous algae growth in the lake’s western end each summer. A toxin inside the blue-green algae can cause rashes, nausea, headaches and organ damage.
Michigan is one of several states in the lake’s watershed issuing action plans the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to roll into a broader strategy to curb the harmful algal blooms, which turn the water green, slimy and toxic.
The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada requires national plans be completed by February 2018. Ohio, which has the most land in the western basin watershed and the most coastline impacted by the annual blooms, is expecting to release its plan in October.
Michigan’s plan notes the possibility of new laws — if the legislature will pass them — that could improve the lake’s health by adjusting the state drain code, developing a statewide septic system rules and other changes to “create a more integrated, watershed-based system for managing water at the landscape level.”
The plan was developed jointly between the state departments of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Natural Resources (DNR) and Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD).
Public comment on the plan ends July 14. A public meeting is scheduled Wednesday, June 28 at 6:30 p.m. in the Baer Auditorium at Adrian College.
The plan drew praise from the Michigan Farm Bureau because it doesn’t recommend any new regulation on agriculture, which scientists who’ve studied the blooms say is the largest source of nutrient runoff feeding the algae with available phosphorus.
The plan drew measured criticism from environmental groups in Michigan and Ohio for the same reason. Instead of calling for new rules on how farms use fertilizer, the plan emphasizes reliance on voluntary programs like the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which incentivizes farms to install environmentally friendly features like soil buffer strips, windbreak trees and subsurface tile drain filters.
“At the end of the day, it’s dependent on voluntary engagement,” said Tom Zimnicki, agriculture policy director at Michigan Environmental Council. “It depends on the producer stepping up, for whatever reason, and saying ‘this is important.'”
“Relying on voluntary actions alone is not going to get us to where we need to be.”
Jim Johnson, director of environmental stewardship at MDARD, said the voluntary programs is labor intensive and involves working with each farm to develop a plan to manage runoff.
Johnson said there’s still a lot of research happening around understanding how dissolved phosphorus migrates off farm fields and gets into lake tributaries. Until more is known, new laws “may be requiring something in statute that completely misses the mark.”
The state is nearing an agreement with Michigan State University and the U.S. Geological Survey to study nutrient runoff and develop methods to keep fertilizer in the field, Johnson said.
“I don’t know if we know enough today to know what the goals are.”
Zimnicki still sees a disconnect in the state’s approach. Voluntary measures have been effective in some local communities, but haven’t had landscape-wide impact.
“There’s a big difference when it comes to monitoring and evaluating success in terms of what you can accomplish at the edge of a field versus in-stream water quality,” he said. “We’re using at times two different measuring sticks.”
He argued that applying fertilizers at appropriate rates, not applying manure on saturated or frozen ground and finding ways to get nutrients as close to the plant root zone as possible are among a “suite of practices” needed to make a difference.
“There isn’t just one management practice that controls soluble reactive phosphorous,” he said. “There is no silver bullet to this.”
This summer, federal scientists project the bloom to be on par with the one in 2014, when algal toxins poisoned the Toledo drinking water supply for several days.
Tim Davis, a biologist with National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, said on a 1 to 10 severity scale, the bloom this year is projected to reach between a 6 and 8.
This year isn’t expected to be as severe as record-setting blooms in 2011 and 2015, but it won’t be as small as the one last year. Overall toxicity of the bloom can’t be forecast yet.
“Not record setting,” Davis said. But “not small.”
Bloom severity is driven by the amount of bioavailable phosphorus, particularly from the Maumee River, which enters Lake Erie at Toledo. “Bioavailable” phosphorus is a combination of phosphorus attached to dirt and dissolved, or soluble, phosphorus that can be directly absorbed by plant cells. Because May was a rainy month, that resulted in a lot of phosphorus runoff in the Maumee watershed.
Although phosphorus comes from other rivers in Michigan and Ohio, particularly the Detroit River, the Environmental Protection Agency says spring phosphorus loading in the Maumee basin is the controlling factor in Lake Erie algal production. Farms dominate the Maumee watershed, which includes fertile drained lands of the Great Black Swamp. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says nonpoint sources (runoff) make up almost 90 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen entering the watershed.
Michigan’s portion of the Maumee watershed is relatively small, approximately 300,000 acres in Monroe, Hillsdale and Lenawee counties; about seven percent of the total watershed land area. Agriculture is the primary land use in Michigan’s portion of the watershed. There are eight Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) under a pollution discharge permit in that area, according to the DEQ.
Those eight CAFOs apply manure on about 21,000 acres, which represents about seven percent of the Michigan portion of the Maumee watershed.
Farms under 1,000 “animal units” don’t require a discharge permit in Michigan. Those units are a measure of manure producing capacity, not a total animal count. Whereas Ohio stopped allowing farms to apply manure on snow-covered, frozen or saturated soil, Michigan’s rules only prohibit such applications in certain conditions.
Laura Campbell, a program director at the Michigan Farm Bureau, said Michigan’s draft report “maintains good regulatory management of larger livestock farms.”
Voluntary programs like MAEAP have helped curb the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie via the River Raison, and “the fact that this plan calls for more of that I think is the right way to go.” She’d like to see the program replicated in Ohio.
On the other side, Ohio Environmental Council natural resources director Kristy Meyer says “common sense” regulations are a better approach than voluntary measures. Her group thinks farmers should have to test their soil to ensure they aren’t using too much fertilizer.
The OEC wants to see tighter regulations on large farms that fall just under the animal unit threshold to require a discharge permit.
Nonetheless, she’s pessimistic Ohio will call for new regulations.
“I think what you’ll see is no state offering up additional regulations,” Meyer said. While that could be seen as a non-starter under the Trump administration, “to be fair, it was a non-starter under the Obama administration, too.”
“Nobody wants to touch agriculture because they believe it’s political death,” she said.