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Lake Erie Impairment Designation FAQ

2:03 pm, Fri March 23, 2018 – Our answers to common questions about the Ohio EPA's designation of Lake Erie as impaired. We'll update this page as new information is available or requested

Last update: March 30, 11:15 a.m. ET


The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated the open waters of western Lake Erie as impaired in a draft report. What does that actually mean?

The new water quality designation doesn’t mean that Lake Erie isn’t safe for drinking water, or for recreational boating and swimming. It means that the open waters of Lake Erie do not meet federal or state water quality goals. The designation does help pave the way for more action to combat pollution that leads to harmful algal blooms (HABs).

You can use the resources highlighted in the next questions to get the information you need to make an informed decision about visiting Lake Erie. We encourage those visits, and these websites will help you choose the perfect destination for your trip.

I enjoy boating, fishing or swimming in Lake Erie. Do I have to be worried about that this summer?

The Ohio Department of Health maintains a BeachGuard website where you can make sure your favorite beach is safe to visit. BeachGuard warnings include bacteria like E. coli as well as harmful algal blooms. Monitoring happens between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year.

Right now it’s too early to tell what HABs might look like later this year, but starting in May, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science publish a twice-weekly Lake Erie HAB Bulletin that forecasts where blooms will be located in the western basin. Check the website before you go boating or fishing, or subscribe to email updates when a new bulletin is released.

I think my drinking water comes from Lake Erie. Should I be worried about that?

Water treatment plants have extensive processes in place to make sure your water is safe to drink. If you’re concerned about your local water supply, you can check the Ohio EPA’s Drinking Water Advisories map to get information on its status.

How were The Ohio State University and Ohio Sea Grant involved in the designation process?

The Ohio State University and Ohio Sea Grant, in collaboration with NOAA, The University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University researchers, was asked to provide the best science-based information to help Ohio EPA assess whether the open waters of Lake Erie meet federal or state water quality goals.

These university researchers provided input on what kinds of data to collect and where, how and when to collect it. In addition, based on published literature, researchers provided potential target values for each type of data collected so that designation would align with Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement goals for Lake Erie and would take into account variations in bloom size from year to year.

What is Ohio Sea Grant doing to address the harmful algal bloom problem?

In addition to funding research into the issue through its biannual request for research proposals, Ohio Sea Grant manages the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative (HABRI), a collaboration between Ohio universities that is funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education and led by The Ohio State University and The University of Toledo.

HABRI researchers work in four focus areas to monitor blooms, keep drinking water safe, address public health concerns and engage stakeholders in the process to reduce and mitigate harmful algal blooms and their impacts on Ohio.

What is the status of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) federal funding?

For fiscal year 2018, the GLRI will be funded at $300 million. Budget discussions continue for fiscal year 2019, so those appropriations are not set yet.

Do we know where in the Lake Erie watershed most nutrients are coming from?

Yes, with some caveats.

We know that about 80% of phosphorus comes from non-point sources across the watershed. Point sources like wastewater treatment plants, combined sewer overflows and industry account for about 10%, and the last 10% are made up of a combination of septic systems and phosphorus already found in Lake Erie.

Within the watershed, more than 20 stream nutrient sensors, some collecting data since the late 1970s and some added over the last five years, indicate that various subwatersheds that ultimately drain into Lake Erie’s western basin contribute to elevated phosphorus levels. That said, the area within these subwatersheds is large, in the thousands of acres each (the Maumee River watershed in Ohio alone is >3.2 million acres). Pinpointing specific locations is expensive and often difficult.

Is there a silver bullet for the problem? How can a large nutrient reduction be accomplished with the least cost?

No single activity, be that addressing single point sources or one agricultural best management practice, solves our excess nutrient issue. It will take a combination of approaches to address the problem.
In terms of non-point phosphorus inputs, which contribute 80% of nutrients, no two farm fields are alike; they differ in the amount of phosphorus that runs off, whether it’s surface or drainage tile runoff, the crop type cultivated, whether fertilizer is manure or a commercial source, and so on.

In general, however, following the 4R nutrient stewardship framework helps farmers increase production, increase profitability and enhance environmental protection. The 4R concept incorporates right fertilizer source (matching fertilizer type to crop needs), right rate (or amount of fertilizer), right time (when crops need them) and right place (placed in the soil where crops can access it). Additionally, current research indicates that increasing the number of acres using buffer strips and cover crops and the placement of fertilizer under the soil surface will help reduce nutrient runoff.

ARTICLE TITLE: Lake Erie Impairment Designation FAQ PUBLISHED: 2:03 pm, Fri March 23, 2018
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Christina Dierkes
Outreach Specialist, Ohio Sea Grant College Program

As Ohio Sea Grant’s science writer, Christina covers research, education and outreach projects in the Great Lakes for a wide range of audiences. She also helps manage online events like the Global Change, Local Impact climate webinar series.

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