TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for stepped-up efforts Wednesday to reduce nutrient pollution that contributes to algae blooms in Lake Erie but recommended no new federal regulations to accomplish the task.
A plan released by EPA’s Chicago-based Region 5 office sets targets for reducing phosphorus that feeds giant algae masses that in the past decade have caused fish kills and beach closures on the shallowest of the Great Lakes, harming tourism and threatening drinking water. A 2014 bloom settled over the drinking water intake pipe for Toledo, Ohio, contaminating the municipal supply for more than 400,000 people.
But the strategy relies largely on existing state and local programs and voluntary actions by the region’s farms to prevent phosphorus-laden fertilizers, manure and sewage from flowing into waterways, particularly in a dissolved form that creates toxins. It acknowledges some tougher rules might be needed but leaves those decisions to the states.
“EPA is working with federal and state partners to ensure local communities and economies continue to benefit from this vital resource,” regional administrator Cathy Stepp said, describing the plan as “a significant step in fulfilling our commitment to protecting the health of Lake Erie.”
The blueprint seeks a 40 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus entering the lake by 2025, a goal endorsed previously by Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and the Canadian province of Ontario. That would require a reduction of about 7.3 million pounds annually from U.S. sources, the EPA plan said.
It said a critically important need is reducing runoff of phosphorus during spring storms through better sewage treatment, stormwater management and farm practices.
For agricultural lands — the biggest source of dissolved phosphorus in Lake Erie’s algae-choked western basin — the plan outlined measures that can keep fertilizers from running off, including reducing nutrient applications on frozen or snow-covered ground, saturated soils and before significant rainfall.
It also recommended specific best-management practices such as building wetlands, planting cover crops and putting vegetation between croplands and streams, but said many farmers question their effectiveness. That shows the need for more financial and technical assistance and collaboration between farm and commodity groups, government agencies and university researchers, it said.
EPA said it would periodically evaluate data from water quality monitoring to determine whether the practices are helping reduce nutrient levels. Greater voluntary participation could reduce the need for regulations, it said.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, said EPA’s plan for a cleaner Lake Erie would be undercut if President Donald Trump succeeds in his proposal to cut most funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which helps pay for anti-runoff efforts.
A coalition of environmental groups said the federal plan included positive goals but lacked teeth. Ohio and Michigan are already behind the pace needed to achieve phosphorus reduction targets and are unlikely to achieve them through voluntary measures alone, they said.
“There’s no accountability, no consequences if we don’t meet the benchmarks and projections in this plan,” said Frank Szollosi, Great Lakes campaign manager for the National Wildlife Federation.
Environmentalists are pushing Ohio to designate its western Lake Erie waters as impaired, which could lead to stronger regulations of farms and other sources of phosphorus pollution. EPA in January rescinded its approval of Ohio’s decision not to make the impairment declaration, requesting another review.
In a response to the federal agency Tuesday, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler held open the possibility of making the designation this year but said the state was already making good progress on nutrient reduction.