Summary – Virtual Townhall Webinar on Nutrient Pollution, Harmful Algal Blooms, and Dead Zones in the Great Lakes

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FLOW’s May 13th webinar hosted four speakers who provided their insight on nutrient pollution in Lake Erie. We were fortunate to hear from

  • Dr. Don Scavia, professor from the University of Michigan
  • Codi Yeager-Kozacek, correspondent from Circle of Blue
  • Dave Dempsey, member from the International Joint Commission
  • Jim Olson, FLOW Founder, President and Environmental Lawyer

Close to 60 participants tuned in; evident of concern across the Great Lakes Water Basin about the issue of reappearing harmful algal blooms (HABs) and “dead zones” in Lake Erie. Below is a quick summary of the discussion.

Moderator Liz Kirkwood gave an overview of the issues: In the 1960’s, point source nutrient pollution was the root cause of HABs, under the regulations of the Clean Water Act and Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, it appeared that the crisis was solved by the 1980’s.

University of Michigan Professor Don Scavia gave an overview of the data that indicated the causes of modern HAB emergence: models require an average load input of dissolved reactive phosphorus to be reduced by 78%. Non-point source pollution is now the predominant issue of Lake Erie’s HABs.

Circle of Blue correspondent Codi Yeager-Kozacek reported on the agriculture factors creating the new, emerging HAB problem: Today, farm technology and increased agricultural competition are factors to a different kind of nutrient pollution. Incentives to combat excessive nutrient runoff encourage updating Best Management Practices (BMPs), which today are not mandatory of farmers. The Great Lakes region generates about 15 billion dollars a year agriculturally. With high competition there is too much at stake to assume an unregulated industry will succeed.

Dave Dempsey discussed how the The International Joint Commission (IJC), a binational organization, will resolve disputes about the use and quality of boundary waters between nations. Their recent Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) report provided recommendations on nutrient pollution reduction and referenced FLOW’s Public Trust Framework as a strategy for future protection of Lake Erie.

JIm Olson concluded the webinar with an explanation of FLOW’s Public Trust Principle. With a struggle against time, resolutions must be made that controls further degradation of Lake Erie. The Public Trust Principle is beneficial because it is both flexible and holds states accountable. It allows for future protection considering public opinion and scientific data, while addressing concerns raised by the other presenters.

The webinar stimulated thought and closed out with an engaging Q and A, a few questions below.

Q. Has the information on the need to ramp-up structural BMPs been shared with USDA/NRCS and EPA for consideration under the new GLRI Action Plan being developed now?
A. Yes, information is being shared throughout the region addressing all the variables, not just BMPs. Information they feel is well know, however the time frame is not.

Q. It appears the intensity of agriculture is WAY out spacing technological and political changes, what structures are in place for the political sphere to keep up with the industry?
A. There are structures in place, such as the Clean Water Act, however we still need further reform collectively on what to do. There needs to be new standards for TMDLs and framework through court action that will hold parties responsible. Implementing Public Trust principles will help move this action forward as our current political sphere shows major gaps.

Q. What current political structures are in place to effectuate political change to compel farmers to use strategies such as BMPs?
A. The Farm Bill is the only solid structure as of right now. Nutrient trading may be something to explore in the future, yet it does not address TMDLs directly. There have been successes with it, but the EPA sets limits, and the state also sets their own creating conflict. We can consider modeling off chemical-trading as it has been done with air-trading programs. Wisconsin has a number of test programs in place right now that examine nutrient trading, the problem lies however in finding the right scale to measure based upon each watershed.

Q. How does one get land tenants to change, we need non-farming landowners to implement these BMPs also but where is the incentive?
A. Land use regulation should apply to all, in terms of buffers and structural practices. Watershed groups have the authority to regulate land practices that cause harm to waterways, be they agricultural or not. Landowners will be required to regulate in land use through laws sanctioned and passed by the state. Regardless of their specific practice it will be in the best interest of all to follow BMPs.

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