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Conservation Groups: New Study Affirms Curbing Harmful Algal Blooms, Protecting Drinking Water Feasible

Broad adoption of farm conservation practices are needed to curb runoff-fueled harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, according to a new study from the University of Michigan Water Center. The study is the first attempt to assess the amount of land needed to be in conservation practices to reduce runoff that has fueled record-sized harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie and across the Great Lakes region that are poisoning drinking water, harming the economy, and costing taxpayers money. Scientists have known that farm conservation practices can work to reduce excess nutrient runoff and the new study offers an analysis of just how many of those practices are needed across the landscape.

“The study says two things, loudly and clearly: One, we’ve got a big job to do. And two, we can get it done—we have manageable solutions,” said Gail Hesse, Great Lakes water program director, National Wildlife Federation. “The bottom line is that farmers across the region will have to do their fair share to protect our drinking water, jobs, wildlife, and way of life.”

The study comes as another season of harmful algal blooms looms over coastal communities on Lake Erie. Last year’s harmful algal bloom was the largest on record and a bloom the year before contaminated drinking water for more than 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio.

Last summer, the leaders of Michigan, Ohio and Ontario committed to achieving a goal of reducing the flow of algae-inducing phosphorus into the western basin of Lake Erie by forty percent--which represents the scientific consensus for what is needed to prevent algal blooms from continuing to plague Lake Erie.

The modeling released today provides state and provincial leaders with a roadmap of multiple strategies for solving Lake Erie’s problems by reducing farm runoff pollution.

“Today’s report confirms that the 40 percent reduction goal is achievable and that solutions to solve Lake Erie’s problems are already available,” said Molly Flanagan, Alliance for the Great Lakes Vice President for Policy. “What’s equally apparent is that it is going to be hard work to reach this goal. We will need to use all options available including significant public and private funding, and regulatory changes to tackle Lake Erie’s chronic algal blooms--now it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

The region had successfully tackled the problem of harmful algal blooms more than 40 years ago. In the 1960s and 70s, algal blooms fed by industrial waste and sewage contamination were common, until passage of the Clean Water Act and multi-billion-dollar federal investment to modernize community sewers. Those efforts curbed harmful algal blooms for the better part of two decades until they started re-surfacing again in the late 1990s.

“We’ve tackled big problems before and we can do it again,” said Jack Schmitt, deputy director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “This study is a strong affirmation that we can once again restore the health of Lake Erie, but it cannot be done with half-measures and a piecemeal approach. We all need to keep our eyes on the prize to protect Lake Erie and all of the communities which rely on it for their drinking water, jobs, and way of life.”

Conservation groups are calling on Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to take strong action to achieve their pollution reduction targets to heal Lake Erie.

“The science is clear. To prevent Lake Erie’s toxic algae, we need broad scale adoption of practices that will effectively reduce farm runoff pollution, said Adam Rissien, Clean Water Director for the Ohio Environmental Council. “Relying on voluntary measures alone is not enough. State lawmakers need to level the playing field so those farmers currently doing the right thing are not the only ones.”

The leading cause of harmful algal blooms, according to scientists, is runoff pollution from agriculture. Agricultural runoff pollution occurs when rain and snowmelt flush excess fertilizers and manure off of farm fields and into streams and rivers. Those streams then carry the nutrient-rich fertilizers and manure into Lake Erie where they end up feeding the growth of algae rather than the crops for which they were intended.

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