June 23, 2015

Earliest Ever Lake Erie Algal Bloom Cited In Need for Enforceable Agricultural Pollution Regulations

Groups Say Proposed Voluntary Standards Fall Far Short of Addressing Phosphorus Runoff

Media Contact: Gail Philbin, 312-493-2384

Lansing--The earliest recorded Lake Erie blue-green algae bloom was spotted last week by a Great Lakes charter boat captain about three and one-half miles from the City of Toledo’s water intake. The discovery signals continuing threats to drinking water sources drawn from the lake at the same time Michigan officials are proposing a Water Strategy that would continue dependence on voluntary agricultural anti-pollution policies that have proven to be ineffective.

The Lake Erie algae appearance, coming weeks ahead of the typical blooms in July and August, coincides with the comment period on the State of Michigan’s recently released Water Strategy that relies heavily on voluntary compliance to combat industrial agricultural runoff, a major source phosphorus pollution into Lake Erie.  While the proposed Water Strategy is viewed as a starting point for addressing many water concerns in the Great Lakes State, member organizations of the Less=More Coalition  say its goal of reducing by 40 percent phosphorus runoff from agriculture won’t succeed unless the state adopts strong regulations for agricultural pollution and enforces pollution rules. 

“The report from the state was the equivalent of a get-well card when what Lake Erie really needs is emergency intensive care,” said Gail Philbin, director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. “We need meaningful regulations and enforcement of anti-pollution laws that will allow the lake to heal.”

Phosphorus pollution from agriculture, including factory farm waste, has been an issue for more than a decade in the western Lake Erie watershed.  In the wake of last summer’s Lake Erie crisis, fertilizer runoff from monoculture crop farms and waste from livestock factories were identified as the largest contributor to the situation. For now, the recently identified bloom in Lake Erie doesn’t appear to contain the toxic blue-green algae that poisoned the drinking water for nearly 500,000 people in Toledo and southeast Michigan.

In one important step to combat toxic algae in the Great Lakes, the Sierra Club, Environmentally Concerned Citizens for South Central Michigan (ECCSCM), Food & Water Watch and other coalition members of Less=More are advocating a ban on all application of livestock waste on frozen or snow-covered ground, a common practice that leads to phosphorus runoff into waterways with rain or warming temperatures. Last winter, the DEQ failed to adequately address this issue in the revision of its water quality permitting program for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

“The DEQ’s permit included one revision imposing a few restrictions on CAFOs that give or sell waste to others but left room for most operations to do it on a voluntary basis only. Expecting voluntary action on the part of agricultural producers to save Lake Erie is what got us into this situation in the first place,” said Pam Taylor of Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan.

Other factors that facilitate agricultural waste runoff and nurture Lake Erie’s algae include subsurface drainage tile systems that carry dissolved phosphorus into waterways, lax enforcement of CAFO permits when violations occur, and a reliance on academic models rather than “real world” monitoring at the edge of farm fields in the headwaters and tributaries where the problem begins.

“If the DEQ is really serious about its Water Strategy and reducing phosphorus by 40 percent, it cannot settle for a compromise and will target the real sources of algae blooms in Lake Erie and other bodies of water in Michigan,” said Lynna Kaucheck of Food & Water Watch. “Relying on voluntary action is irresponsible and leaves a major source of drinking water for the region at the mercy of an industry looking to profit above all else. We must ban manure application on frozen or snow-covered ground, take seriously the role of subsurface drainage systems in the problem, enforce CAFO permits and punish violators, and conduct edge-of-field phosphorus monitoring upstream from Lake Erie.”

Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan are members of Less=More, a sustainable agriculture coalition targeting Farm Bill subsidies in Michigan that favor polluting factory farms over safe, sustainable livestock farms at the expense of the environment and public health. The coalition’s report, Restoring the Balance to Michigan’s Farming Landscape, exploring the relationship between Farm Bill subsidies and factory farm pollution in Michigan can be downloaded at http://www.sierraclub.org/michigan/lessmore.