Algal blooms on Lake Erie. Who’s to blame?

As the algae bloom in Lake Erie continues to grow, so does the debate on who’s really to blame.

A report released by Environmental Defence, an environmental and health organization, Wednesday morning… suggested a four-point plan to fix the bothersome bloom.

“We are seeing increasing intensity, increasing frequency in algal blooms on the Great Lakes — obviously what we’re doing so far is not enough,” said Nancy Goucher, water program manager for the organization.

The plan outlines four key points that will “fix” the algae issue, including harnessing market forces to help farmers cut down on nutrient runoff, building water smart cities, improving scientific understanding of the blooms and forming a policy framework that pushes for action.

A press release from the organization stated:

“The Ontario government should evaluate the applicability of market mechanisms such as tax shifting, pollution taxes and nutrient trading to transfer money from undesirable acts like polluting to desirable ones that reward farmers for ‘doing the right thing.’”

It’s this kind of statement that raises questions from agriculture experts like Ivan O’Halloran, an associate professor at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus who studies nutrient use and soil fertility.

“What they’re saying is reasonable,” he said. “The only concern I have is that when you write it that way they did it sort of implies that farmers are doing the wrong things now and I don’t believe that is the case for all farmers.”

O’Halloran has been fielding questions about farmers and phosphorous for years.

He’s encountered all sorts of explanations and studies and while he admits that farmers play a role in adding phosphorous to Lake Erie he said the issue isn’t that simple.

“If there was a simple solution we would have already implemented it,” he said. “There is absolutely no doubt that agriculture contributes to phosphorus in the Great Lakes, but there are numerous studies from urban areas that have shown that the actual amount of phosphorous lost per acre of land from urban areas can be several orders of magnitude greater than agricultural land.”

According to O’Halloran, “impervious surfaces” such as concrete and asphalt allow phosphorous from lawn fertilizers to run off the land and into the lake, especially after flooding and heavy rainfall like Detroit and Windsor experienced earlier this week.

“Homeowners are spreading phosphorous on their driveways and walkways and some of it gets onto the road and that just washes into the storm drain systems,” he said.“If that had been agricultural fields there probably would have been very little to no runoff, but we keep making more and more impervious surfaces and the water has to run off.”

Goucher said her organization acknowledges the fact that farmers have taken steps to limit the amount of nutrients entering the lake from their land, but still described agriculture as the number one cause of phosphorous runoff.

“It’s happening both in the agricultural sector and in urban communities, however I think it’s really important to note that most of the sources of phosphorous is coming from the agricultural community,” she said.“Right now there’s incentive for farmers to farm right up to the edge of a creek which allows for much more phosphorous to enter those waterways, which eventually makes its way into the Great Lakes.”

In the report, Environmental Defence suggests that the solution to the problem is to get the provincial government on board with the fight against algae.

Goucher points out that the Liberal party included a desire to take on algal blooms and limit nutrient runoff in their platform, a sign she takes as promising.

“I have confidence that we will see action from this government.” she said “I think no government wants to see the Great Lakes being carpeted in algal blooms every summer so I think it’s in their interest to take action.”

O’Halloran isn’t so sure.

“I’ve heard this before, it’s either a government incentive or pollution tax, but maybe the other way of looking at it is saying maybe we should all be paying a fair value for the food we eat,” he said. “It’s nice to say yes, we’ll give incentives and pay them to do the right thing, and stuff like that, but it’s a lot harder to implement than it is just to say.”

One thing that both parties can agree upon is that until drastic changes are made to the way people treat the land, algal blooms will continue to appear each summer in the Great Lakes, threatening tourism, industry, agriculture and the people who rely upon them for drinking water.


View original article at: Algal blooms on Lake Erie. Who’s to blame?

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