Lake Erie has been declared impaired. So what?

Lake Erie has been declared impaired. So what?
April 3, 2018 Mary Ellen Geist

As you saw on greatlakesnow.org last week, Ohio’s western Lake Erie has been declared impaired due to toxic algae blooms that have caused problems in the shallowest part of the lake at the warmest times of the year for the past decade.  The move ends years of what many people portrayed as resistance by Ohio Governor John Kasich’s administration.

Some people believe the declaration was delayed because state officials were worried the word “impaired” might keep tourists and residents from wanting to recreate and fish in Lake Erie.  Others say it’s because the state didn’t want to have to jump through bureaucratic hoops that might not even yield much help for Lake Erie.

Bacteria from an algal bloom in Lake Erie forced the city of Toledo to shut down its drinking water system for several days in 2014.  The bright green algae called microcystis, a genus of cynobacteria, looks like neon pea soup and has made the lake infamous.

The move to get “impaired” status came after the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy center sued the U.S. EPA in federal court over actions it said prevented the lake from getting on the “impaired” list.

This new status comes out of research findings from Ohio State University’s Sea Grant College Program, Bowling Green State University, University of Toledo, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. EPA.

The state of Ohio has already invested more than 3 billion dollars to improve Lake Erie’s water quality.

Environmentalists are praising the new “impaired” status. But what difference will it really make? How will declaring western Lake Erie “impaired” help improve the conditions of the lake?

Photo courtesy of epa.ohio.gov

Craig Butler, Director of the Ohio EPA, courtesy of epa.ohio.gov

DPTV’s Great Lakes Bureau decided to get some answers from Director of the Ohio Environmental Agency (EPA) Craig Butler to find out more. Here is the interview, below:

GLB: Thanks so much for talking with us. How long have you been Director of the Ohio EPA?

CB: I have been director of the Ohio EPA on an interim basis and then a full-time basis since January 2014. I have spent my entire professional career working at the Ohio EPA – 28 years.

GLB: So, you were in Ohio when the algae problems began. Describe some of the things that were happening at the time that were blamed for the crisis that eventually shut down Toledo’s drinking water system. 

CB: So, when you look at the data and look at the information that we’ve had historically, there are a lot of reasons for Lake Erie’s pollution that are still unknown. When you talk to the science community, it is beginning to become better and more well-known that we’ve seen a proliferation of algae and noticeably, a version of algae that has a harmful component – the microcystin – and a proliferation in the western basin of Lake Erie dating back to probably 2002 might be a good starting point. I think some of these algal blooms in the lake that have been around certainly go farther back than that.

But we know there was a noticeable increase after the 90’s, where we started seeing a longer more widespread degradation, and then general coverage revealed that we had harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, predominantly in the western basin of Lake Erie.  And the culmination for Ohio actually predated that.

It was around 2010, when Governor Kasich took office. I was working as his policy advisor then at the time, and we had Grand Lake St. Marys, which is right on the edge of the watershed for Lake Erie and the Western Basin, where we had a severe outbreak of harmful algal blooms in Grand Lake St. Marys. And the Governor then asked the directors of Agriculture, Natural Resources and EPA (as well as myself at the time) to go to the lake try to understand what is going on and put a plan together, which was really our introduction to this issue of:  what is harmful algae, what is microcystin, what can be the impacts – and at the time, we then started putting together a plan with the scientists across the community and began to say – “what do we need to do?” And that’s where we saw consensus around this: that we need to see a 40 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus going in to the Grand Lake and into the Western Basin for us to get back to that time period where we had a less prolific algal bloom, and before this microcystin and harmful algae existed. So, that’s been our focus since 2010.

“Mayor, you’ve got significant microcystin in your drinking water”

GLB: Can you talk about some of the incidents that lead the state of Ohio to decide to take action to get the western portion of Lake Erie declared impaired? 

CB: In the Western Basin, typically, you know our sentinel moment was August 2nd 2014, when we had to call the Mayor of Toledo on a Friday night and suggest that, “Mayor, you’ve got significant microcystin in your finished drinking water.

It’s above the World Health Organization numbers that we knew that that were safe at the time. And you need a ‘do not drink advisory’ so the half million residents in Toledo don’t drink the water.” So, from that point on, it has been: “how do we understand the science, how do we provide funding to understand some of the activities going on in the lake?  How do we get monitors in the Western Basin to understand where the predominant sources of nutrients are coming from, and then ultimately craft a plan on what it’s going to take for us to hit this 40 percent reduction? So not a day goes by without thinking about either what the cause is or how we can protect people from it during this interim period before we fix the problem.

GLB: Many people have been working to get western Lake Erie declared impaired for many years. Why has it taken so long?

CB: So, this is the conversation I have with our governor and a lot of people, about understanding the difference about this: does the lake have a problem generically? The answer is yes. We knew that.  Is the lake federally really impaired under the Clean Water Act?  The question –  the first question – is easy to answer. Is there a problem?  Yes. Are we figuring out what the answer to that problem is? Yes. Are we making progress? We believe so.  The last question is a little more difficult because you are correct in that we had already in 2006 and then subsequent to that already listed portions of Lake Erie as federally impaired – under the Clean Water Act, our nearshore areas around drinking water intakes either for more traditional pollutants like E.coli and fish habitat and things like that. So, there are some of the known factors on how do you determine if something is impaired. The question in 2014 for our integrated report and 2016 for our integrated report – the question that we had asked the U.S. EPA was – if we’re looking at our open water outside of our nearshore and we’re trying to make a determination of if it’s federally impaired because of this microcystin or algae –  what’s the process we use to do that?  And –  what are the rules of engagement?  How would we say it’s impaired or more importantly, how would we say it’s fixed, or it can come off the impairment listing?  And frankly we got no positive answer from U.S.  EPA in both instances.

GLB: Michigan already declared the part of Lake Erie that touches Michigan’s shoreline impaired. Why did it take Ohio longer to do this?

CB: So, as I say,  you’ve probably seen –  we have never been afraid of making the determination of impairment but what we could not frankly get from U.S. EPA is:  what is a method to use that had a science basis for it?  Now, Michigan in 2016 I think, made a declaration that their open waters were impaired. It was a narrative criteria – Is there algae there or not? And then the designation that was made I think around fish habitat –  not for recreation – those are all nuances. We don’t think that Michigan did anything wrong. We just wanted a more scientifically robust process to use, and EPA couldn’t provide us one. And then –  not to kind of blow our own horn – but what we said  was, “We’re going to have to do it ourselves.”  So, this past year, we had all of our major universities sit down and help us –  NOAA and U.S. EPA participated – to give us the process that we can use that is based on science to make a determination of impairment. They gave us one, we used it, and we ended up declaring the open waters impaired because of it.

GLB: So now western Lake Erie has impaired status. So what?

CB: Right. So, think of it this way:  if we are to make an impairment of a body of water –  it can be a stream segment, it could be even a lake – the traditional pathway that you use as a first step –  is impaired. We know there’s a problem.

Second step always is to say “go do a study, go do your total maximum daily load study,” which can take several years to determine what specifically is the problem, and what is causing the problem. And then the third step is, you put a plan in place to go fix the problem. So, what happened in that sequence?

In Lake Erie’s case,  we already know there is a problem . We already frankly know –  because of the research we’ve been doing – what the source is or what the problem is and we largely know how to fix it. We’re already implementing that plan. So when I say “we’ve declared the open waters of Lake Erie as impaired in the Western Basin” and that it frankly doesn’t change anything for us,  it’s because we already have a plan – a  domestic action plan. EPA is required under the Bi- National Water Quality Agreement. We already have a blueprint on how we’re going to fix it. And that, in addition to the work that we’re doing here in the state, and legislatively to bring some additional state resources to it, we think are largely how we get this done. The other reason this designation doesn’t help us is that maybe specifically here in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, the impairment source is nutrients.  Those nutrients are largely and vastly, predominantly from our nonpoint source of nutrients, which is predominantly from agriculture, which the Clean Water Act then specifically precludes the EPA from taking actions against the agricultural community.

“We need to treat all nutrients the same”

GLB: I’m still not getting a sense of how “impairment status” helps western Lake Erie and what happens next.

CB: The impairment status now would typically allow us to move to the next step and do a key MDL (Method Detection Limit) study. We’ve done all of those for the Western Basin –  almost all of them for our watershed. We’ve already done our blueprint on what we believe we need to do to fix this problem. So, the impairment designation – while an obligation under the Clean Water Act and important – doesn’t give us any additional tools or any additional money or resources to actually do anything different than we’re already doing currently.

GLB: So, it sounds like a matter that’s mostly about bureaucracy.

CB:  It’s an obligation that I take seriously under the Clean Water Act that we have to do this – that we have to do this assessment. And for the last several years we’ve been unable to do it – not been afraid of it. And I think it’s a better job for us to be able to explain to people –  if we’re going to declare it impaired – it doesn’t mean that the lake is any more in trouble than it was before that impairment. I don’t want people to get scared that they can’t recreate in the lake or   they can’t fish in the lake –  that messaging becomes more difficult when you declare something as impaired.  These are multibillion dollar industries in the state-  as it is for Michigan – even though it’s, you know, a smaller segment where it’s a huge resource. We supply drinking water to 25 percent of Ohioans from Lake Erie. The investments in travel and tourism are some of  our largest industries in the state of Ohio. So, we need to be –  like I said  – we’ve never been afraid to make this designation,  but we need to make sure that we can explain to people that this is a regulatory determination about water quality. It’s not an indication that the lake is unhealthy to use and recreate in, even though we know we have problems at certain times of the year.

GLB: So – give us a sense of how you feel about the future of Lake Erie, and where you see the state and the EPA going now as far as Lake Erie’s pollution problems.

CB:  So our next we think very positive step is  – we continue to say –  we need to treat all nutrients the same.  And we’re investing heavily – when you look at our domestic action plan and our funding – that we’re investing in wastewater treatment plant upgrades, we’re fixing septic systems. We’re working on point sources and nonpoint sources –  all of them –  we need to continue to push in all other areas. The one piece that that we’re working on here in Ohio and this is –  like I mentioned, the Clean Water Act doesn’t allow EPA to reach over into the agriculture community – but that is largely where the problem lies. We don’t dispute that there are other sources, but that is largely – if we’re going to make it a “move the needle” moment  – it’s working with agriculture to change their practices, and we’re working to get a bill introduced here in the state of Ohio. We’ve got a state statute that defines agricultural pollution. Right now, that’s confined generally to manure. We need to include fertilizer in that definition. Once we are able to build that foundation to say if it’s fertilizer or if it’s manure we can then call that watershed –  what we do in Ohio we call it a watershed in distress – which then requires agriculture to develop a nutrient management plan around this 40 percent reduction goal. It’s mandatory. I know people don’t like that. But if we’re going to get on a trajectory to meet this goal of 40 percent algae reduction by 2025, that’s exactly what needs to happen.

“Lake Erie is open for business”

GLB: So I visited Lake Erie’s Maumee Bay last October. It was a slimy neon green. The visuals alone are off-putting for some people.  Will we see Lake Erie be that color again this year?

CB: So that’s last year – it was an interesting year. We had a very, very good year in terms of algae in the open waters, and then all of a sudden we had very warm spot in October and it just happened to pop into Maumee River. It was very visible. But overall, the year was fairly decent.

Scientists tell us the critical time is March, April and May if we have significant rainfall in the Western Basin in March, April and May, it preloads the Western Basin with the nutrients so when the water temperature warms up, you get a lot of sunlight.

The likelihood of having a forecast that would say the algal bloom is going to be pretty severe is really great. So, it’s all about the weather! And until we are able to change agricultural practices and not see as much fertilizer making its way into the Maumee River – we’re somewhat at the mercy of how the weather patterns arrive in the very early spring and THAT   – that is something that is unfortunate until we get this problem under control.

 GLB:  What would you like to say specifically to people who like to fish and boat and swim in Lake Erie?

CB: You know we call Lake Erie – the governor calls Lake Erie – “the jewel of Ohio.” It always has been and, frankly, it always will be. What we are doing right now to make sure that the recreative public is safe is that we give out very, very general precautions: if you see an algal bloom stay out of it, if you have contact with it wash it off.  Feel free to enjoy the lake, recreate in the water – you can safely eat the fish and sport fish that we have –  the walleye and perch and other fish are safe to eat – we give them precautions on how to clean fish throughout the entire summer season, through all of our health departments and in our public pages of Maumee  State Park and elsewhere. We monitor beaches every week. We post all of that information if there’s any precautions people need to know about online through the state health department. So, we go above and beyond to make sure that, if there is any problem the public needs to know about, they have that information.  But otherwise, Lake Erie is open for business. We look forward to people coming to fish and enjoy and recreate here.


  1. Paul Youngstrum 6 years ago

    This article makes it sound like the state of Ohio is the only one doing anything about the problems for the western basin. How about mentioning all the federal dollars invested in the basin by USDA thru their financial assistance programs to farmers thru the EQIP, CSP, and CRP programs? These programs provide assistance to reduce soil losses and improve soil health, nutrient management , and manure storage and application. USDA has made quite an investment of its own dollars and staff, and added to it with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (of which USEPA is in the lead). Solving the algal bloom problem is so big that everyone needs to be on board and coordinate their efforts at the local, state, federal levels.

  2. Keith Pritchard 6 years ago

    The invasive mussels proliferated in the 90’s and they have a preference to feed on beneficial algae that also feed on nutrients like phosphorous. The beneficial algae and plankton are the ecological base of the lakes ecosystem, so when they are diminished it opens a double whammy of a vacuum in nature. This allows the excess of phosphorous not used by beneficials and the lack of competition in the lake environment makes it perfect for the toxic algae to bloom. Cutting phosphorous from farmers likely will do nothing. Even the population explosion of geese and cormorants in the rivers and lakes watershed since the late 80’s provides for a couple pounds each of high phosphorous excrement right in the watersheds. Pounding on farmers is a worthless costly for farmers endeavour. Of course government has a preference also to be toxic to business as opposed to actually trying to solve the problem of the mussel invasion in the benthic zone of the lakes. The mussels provide a triple action of environmental harm and it will not change no matter what we do to farmers and even cities like Detroit that have a couple million gallon sewage overflow everytime it rains. Mussels have depleted plankton in the upper lakes so alewife fish and the salmon that prey on them have declined drastically. There are lakes in Eastern Europe that are now clean as the mussels will feed on the toxic algae after the beneficials are gone. Also, in these lakes are the invasive carp species like found in the Mississippi River. they can feed on the pseudofaeces of the mussels and a few fish that can feed on the mussels. We can have clear lakes if we let things go as we are, but the total environment of the lakes will change to much fewer species with mostly trash varieties of everything dominating. To me the entire approach is myopic and misplaced. I suspect you can cut phosphorous from farmers to near zero and still have levels high in the lakes. Need to focus on the real problem that caused this algae explosion, not useless efforts to affect productive agriculture business for no benefit to the lakes. Giving the ODA and other agencies more power over everyone is in no ones interest outside of governments money, growth, and power interest. I increasingly find in all avenues that government action in its own interest only contributes to the problems.

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