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Is western Lake Erie impaired?


This month, the Ohio EPA could place the western Lake Erie basin on its impaired list, a biennial list of waters that do not meet state water quality standards. And with harmful algal blooms posing a threat to drinking and recreational waters every summer, advocates say there’s a clear need to clean up Lake Erie.  But is the impaired designation the solution?

Lake Erie: the smallest and the shallowest of all the Great Lakes. It provides water for millions and rakes in a huge chunk of Ohio’s tourism dollars. But it also suffers from pollution – excess phosphorus and nitrogen that lead to harmful algal blooms, which closes beaches and affects drinking water.

Most of that pollution comes from Lake Erie’s western basin – which starts around Sandusky and southern Canada and extends to Indiana and Michigan.

Environmental groups want the western basin declared impaired. Here’s Gail Hesse of the National Wildlife Federation to explain what that means.

"Impairment means that a water body – or a portion of a water body – doesn’t meet water quality standards or beneficial use designation," said Hesse.

So it might be unsafe to drink, eat fish from, or use recreationally. It could also be a harmful environment for aquatic life.

I sat with Hesse on a deck overlooking Lake Erie’s Central basin. From the shore, you can faintly make out the shape of rollercoasters at Cedar Point.  All across the sand are tons of zebra and quagga mussels – invasive species that made their way into Lake Erie years ago.

The Ohio EPA makes a list of impaired waters every two years. From there, the US EPA approves or partially approves the list. But Hesse says an impairment designation may not bring about the changes everyone is hoping for.

"An impairment designation is just that – it’s a label," said Hesse. "It’s not the label that’s going to make a change – what’s going to make a change are detailed plans and a commitment to action and ultimately a significant investment in those actions that will make the change."

Credit Elizabeth Miller
A view of Lake Erie's central basin.

Those actions are called TMDLS: Total-Maximum-Daily-Loads. In other words – the maximum amount of pollution (manure, fertilizer, sewage) that can enter the water.  Once a water body is declared impaired, the Ohio EPA sets those pollution limits. That’s why groups, including the Ohio Environmental Council’s Adam Rissien, want them so badly.

"What we’ve heard before is that impairment will hurt Lake Erie’s reputation," said Rissien. "To be clear, what hurts Lake Erie’s reputation is the toxic algae."

Ohio’s impaired list already includes 267 bodies of water, many of them watersheds and rivers that flow into the western basin, and the Ohio EPA’s Karl Gebhardt doesn’t see a reason to call all of western Lake Erie impaired.

"If you really want to fix Lake Erie, you have to fix the watershed," said Gebhardt.

There’s also a few other states and Canada involved.

“If it was just an Ohio body of water that may also play a role in it, but when you share it with other states as well as the providence in Canada which doesn’t even recognize the term impaired as far as a legal definition, it makes it really challenging for anything to take place," said Gebhardt.

The Ohio EPA is working on a plan with Canada, Michigan and Indiana to curb pollution into western Lake Erie. That, and another broader, state-specific plan are set to come out in the next couple of weeks.  All of these plans are working toward one goal: reducing total phosphorus entering the western and central basins of the lake by 40% in the next 9 years. 

Ohio Environmental Council’s Adam Rissien says an impairment designation would be helpful if it leads to quicker results – but it’s not a requirement.

"Plans are great but results are better," said Rissien. "Any plan that comes out must have a timeline, must have milestones that need to be met in order to show we’re actually reducing the pollution that causes toxic algae to begin with."

Back on Gail Hesse’s deck, she notes that impairment could be good for the cause.

"If a designation can really help galvanize more attention, more focus, and more commitment to action for nutrient reduction – then that would be a great thing," said Hesse.

The 2016 impaired waters list will be open to public comment once it’s released - before it’s sent to the US EPA for approval.

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.