By Kaley Fech
Capital News Service
A diverse group of Michigan organizations is forming a coalition to improve water quality in Lake Erie.
It’s a model that the partners say could also benefit Michigan’s inland lakes dealing with the algae that plagues Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.
Farm, environmental, university, government and landscape groups are part of the new Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie through Action and Research partnership.
“Our short-term goal is to share information across the board,” said Jennifer Read, director of the Water Center at the University of Michigan. “Our long term goal is to have better water quality in Lake Erie.”
Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, agrees.
“Our mission is to improve the water quality of the Western Lake Erie Basin through open discussion among regional leaders that brings a coordinated perspective to existing efforts,” she said in a press release.
Partner organizations will host on-site events such as farm tours, water collection on the lake and tours of wastewater treatment plants, said Laura Campbell, manager of the agricultural ecology department for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
It will provide ways for university researchers to find farms to test new management practices and measure nutrient reduction, create opportunities for water quality monitoring or testing nutrient reduction techniques in the lake and its tributaries, and find contributors to help with project and funding requests.
The diversity of the partnership makes it unique from past ones, Read said.
“These folks have not typically all worked together in the past to any great extent.”
The water quality problems in Lake Erie are caused by algae that feed on phosphorus. The phosphorus is applied to farm fields because it’s an essential nutrient for plants, Read said.
Runoff from the fields transfers the phosphorus to the lake.
Phosphorus pollution from wastewater treatment plants also encourages algae growth.
“Some algae can be a nuisance. It clogs the beaches and it can smell,” Read said. “It’s generally aesthetically unappealing.”
And some algae threatens health.
“Some algae is poisonous to animals,” Read said. “They drink the water in the lake, and it makes them sick. It’s also harmful to people. It can cause breathing problems when people boat through it, and it can get into drinking water and make people sick.”
In 2014, Toledo was forced to shut down its water system because an algal toxin was found in the water.
Chris Sebastian, the public affairs coordinator for coalition memebr Great Lakes region of Ducks Unlimited, said rainfall is one factor that determines how much phosphorus ends up in the lake.
“Some years are worse than others for algae blooms,” Sebastian said. “That’s determined by rainfall because the more rain there is, the more runoff from farms there will be.”
Farmers, often blamed for the problem, say they hope to help find the resolution.
Campbell said, “Farmers have been working on solutions for a long time. What’s really happening now is, we’re saying we really need to focus on these areas that are having water quality problems because even though agriculture isn’t the only source, we have the opportunity to be part of the solution.”
And Sebastion said preserving the wetlands around the Western Lake Erie basin–— including shoreline north and south of Monroe — could help,
“Wetlands are nature’s kidneys,” he said. “They filter out nutrients and pollutants and keep them from entering Lake Erie. Plants in the wetlands slow down the flow of water, the nutrients fall to the bottom, and then the plants soak them up.”
Western Lake Erie has lost 90 percent of its historical wetlands to development, he said. Restoring them is worth the long and challenging process required to do it.
Improving communication is an important part of the partnership.
“We don’t want to duplicate what someone has already done,” Sebastian said. “We’re doing work on the ground, others are doing research, and it’s helpful to share our findings with one another.”
Although the new group’s focus is on Lake Erie, other areas face related problems and perhaps could benefit from a similar approach.
Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay faces a comparable and increasing algae problem that doesn’t get the same level of attention as Lake Erie, said Tom Zimnicki, agricultural policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. Part of the problem is Saginaw Bay doesn’t have the multi-state focus Lake Erie has.
“Saginaw Bay and the western basin of Lake Erie share a lot of similarities, both from types and sources of nutrients coming in but also things like depth of water and water temperature, all of which contribute to overall algae growth and water quality issues,” Zimnicki said.
“From a pollution standpoint, I think what we’re seeing in Lake Erie, we’re already seeing and we will continue to see those issues in Saginaw Bay as sort of a microcosm of Lake Erie,” he said.
While there are some smaller, local groups addressing the Saginaw Bay problem, there aren’t any efforts at the same scale asf those focused on Lake Erie, Zimnicki said.
And algae problems can be found inland, too.
“We’re definitely seeing algae issues in inland lakes and streams throughout Michigan,” Zimnicki said. “I’ve seen and heard of more common occurrences throughout the state.”
Read said the coalition’s work will likely benefit other areas because most of the people involved have connections to other lakes throughout the state.
The Farm Bureau’s Campbell said that hopefully it can provide a prototype for other communities.
“We saw it as something that could be the model for how water quality issues are addressed in other areas as well,” she said.
And because of its size, the partnership will be able to influence lawmakers, participants say.
“If one group asks for specific action to be taken, they may be overlooked. But when a coalition of this size and diversity of interests asks for specific action, that’s much harder to ignore,” Campbell said.