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Experts can't figure out how some phosphorous runoff gets into Lake Erie

Satellite image of algal bloom in Lake Erie taken in 2015.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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Phosphorous runoff has been blamed for contributing to the growth of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, like this one in 2015.

The state of Michigan just put out an early plan for improving Lake Erie's water quality. And already, it's getting a lot of criticism for lacking specifics, and relying too much on farmers to volunteer for new anti-pollution programs. 

The lack of specifics might be a "fair argument," says Jamie Clover Adams, the director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. But right now, she says state officials don't have all the answers, and need to do more research before they know which guidelines and best practices should be part of the plan. 

One major issue: phosphorous runoff. It's been blamed for contributing to harmful algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie.

According to Adams, state officials are mystified by this problem. She says for years, farmers have worked to prevent soil (and the phosphorous it's fertilized with) from farm fields from washing into streams and into watersheds. 

But even though they're doing a better job keeping that soil from running, somehow,  phosphorous is still getting into Lake Erie. 

“What we have held as a truth for decades may not be the case in every situation,” Adams said. “We’re seeing something called dissolved reactive phosphorous. So somehow, that phosphorous is not binding to the soil.”

Adams says some phosphorus is leaching into waterways on its own, separate from the soil. State officials don't understand how that's happening.

The state's partnering with researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Michigan State University and Ohio State University to work on something called "edge-of-field research." That will hopefully allow them to learn more about how farming practices affect water quality in Lake Erie’s western basin. And, ideally, let experts better understand how to stop phosphorous from ending up in the watershed.

Michigan entered a collaborative agreement with Ohio and Ontario in 2015 to reduce the amount phosphorous entering the western basin of Lake Erie by 40% by 2025.

Adams says Michigan has the funding to support the necessary research, but a bigger effort may be needed in the future.

She says once state officials better understand how phosphorous is getting into the Lake, they'll will be able to pitch more specific plans.  

Adams also defended the draft plan’s focus on voluntary farming programs She says giving farmers options to help keep nutrients on their fields, and therefore out of watersheds, is way more effective than state mandates.

“If you have a permit you’re going to do just what it says," Adams says. "But, if you’re doing it on a voluntary basis, you’re making changes that make sense on your farm, that achieve results, [then] you’re going to do more and it’s going to spur innovation."

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