A Joint Action Plan for Lake Erie by Victoria Pebbles, Program Director, Great Lakes Commission

Lake Erie is the most productive of the Great Lakes, in part because it is the shallowest, most southern, and therefore also the warmest.  These features also make Lake Erie more vulnerable to changes in inputs or external conditions and allow people to observe those changes more readily.  For four of the last five years, Lake Erie has been plagued with severe Harmful Algal Blooms. NOAA indicates that the 2015 bloom was the worst this century1.

Although scientific questions remain about algal blooms and their toxicity, we know that excessive nutrient runoff from is a primary culprit. The 2014 Toledo Water Crisis was a wake-up call. Citizens and policy makers at all levels began responding with demands for tougher looks at how nutrients are used and managed on farms to improved systems for detecting toxic algae at drinking water treatment plants—and everything in between. 

The Great Lakes Commission (GLC) responded with the passage of a resolution that called for a workgroup to develop solutions.  With representation from state and provincial water quality regulatory and agricultural agencies, the GLC’s Lake Erie Nutrient Targets workgroup was predicated on the states and the province having lead responsibility for implementing programs to protect Lake Erie. The workgroup convened regularly between December 2014 and September 2015 to deliberate goals and actions that would be agreeable to all jurisdictions bordering Lake Erie and help solve problems associated with excessive nutrients. 

During that time, the workgroup also directed GLC staff to interview nutrient reduction experts from across North America—from the San Francisco Bay-Delta to Chesapeake Bay as well as within our Great Lakes region—to gather the best ideas about ways to improve the problems associated with excessive nutrients in Lake Erie. Not surprisingly, common ideas and themes emerged from the state and provincial agency workgroup members and those experts that were interviewed.  These ideas formed the basis of the goals and the ten joint actions outlined in the Joint Action Plan for Lake Erie released in September 2015. 

The Joint Action Plan for Lake Erie sets a 40 percent phosphorus reduction target for the western and central basins (from 2008 levels) by 2025 and proposes an interim target of a 20 percent reduction by 2020. Ten joint actions in the Joint Action Plan provide a framework for collective action to achieve the phosphorus reduction targets.  Actions are identified to:

  • Reduce nutrient applications on frozen or snow-covered ground;
  • Adopt 4R’s Nutrient Stewardship Certification or similar programs;
  • Reduce total phosphorus from seven key U.S. municipal dischargers;
  • Encourage investments in green infrastructure;
  • Reduce open-water disposal of dredged material;
  • Pilot innovative performance-based nutrient reduction projects;
  • Phase out residential phosphorus fertilizer applications within five years;
  • Target conservation at the watershed scale;
  • Validate or refine the reduction targets and timelines using an adaptive approach; and
  • Develop an integrated monitoring, modeling, tracking and reporting network for Lake Erie.

While some of the Joint Actions are already being pursued by one or more jurisdiction, others are new. The Joint Action Plan for Lake Erie complements the Collaborative Agreement signed by the western basin governors of Michigan and Ohio and the premier of Ontario in June 2015 and the proposed phosphorus targets under the Annex 4 process, which are expected to be final next month. There is no guarantee that the ten joint actions will reduce phosphorus by exactly 40 percent by 2025. But experience shows these actions will reduce pollutant loadings and help achieve the goal of a healthy Lake Erie that is free from problems associated with excessive nutrients. The Joint Action Plan for Lake Erie reflects a shared commitment to a common roadmap that the states and province bordering Lake Erie can pursue to help solve excessive nutrient problems facing Lake Erie today and ensure a safe and sustainable Lake Erie in the future.  Read or download the Joint Action Plan for Lake Erie at http://glc.org/projects/water-quality/lent/


1) Experimental Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. 10 November 2015, Bulletin 27. http://www2.nccos.noaa.gov/coast/lakeerie/bulletin/bulletin_current.pdf