As climate change complicates Lake Erie's algae problem, scientists say farmer must do far more to reduce phosphorus runoff. But will enough farmers change their ways without a government mandate?
The greenery peeked through a fresh blanket of snow on Jay Williams’ farm.
Over the past few winters, Williams has added a variety of cover crops across his 1,350-acre operation near the Ohio border. There are peas, oats and radishes rising from soil that used to lay fallow through the cold-weather months.
The winter crops unlock nutrients in the soil, which in turn allows him to use less commercial fertilizer in the spring. And the rich, spongy humus should absorb more rain, reducing the risk of fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie.
Williams hopes this and other innovative practices on his farm will make a dent in the miles-wide harmful algae blooms that plague Lake Erie every summer, primarily from nutrients in fertilizer and manure coming from farms and feedlots in the lake’s western basin.
“There's sediment that leaves the farm, despite our best efforts,” Williams said. “But we also have shown that we can keep our phosphorus levels at or below Lake Erie target levels most years.”
His voluntary changes are the type of good-faith effort that environmental regulators hope will reverse the blooms in Lake Erie. But Williams’ operation is just one small contributor to the lake’s problems, and so far not enough farmers are pursuing his path.
Ohio, Michigan and Ontario have given themselves until 2025 to reduce phosphorus into Lake Erie by 40% compared to 2008 levels — a deadline they collectively are not on track to achieve despite throwing billions of dollars at the problem. By one estimate, millions of acres-worth of farmland in the vast western basin, which includes a large swath of Ohio and smaller portions of Indiana, Michigan and Ontario, would have to follow Williams’ example to hit the target.
The cost of failure is staggering: Communities surrounding Lake Erie lose tens of millions of dollars annually to the bloom, which depresses property values, repels tourists and forces lakeshore communities to spend more on drinking water treatment.
And then there’s the impact toxic algae has on human health and quality of life, which many Toledo residents felt acutely as a 2014 bloom settled over the city’s water intake pipe and left residents without drinking water for three days.
Nine months pregnant at the time, Crystal Jankowski resorted to filling buckets from a hose in a friend-of-a-friend’s yard. As she gave birth to her daughter shortly after the crisis ended, Jankowski pleaded with hospital staff: “Did you flush the system? Is the water clean?”
The experience turned her into an activist. Jankowski helped rally city voters in 2019 to pass a Lake Erie Bill of Rights, though a judge invalidated the legislation after a farmer sued.
Her daughter is now six, and although Toledo water officials have since made changes to prevent future contamination, she said, “we still don’t drink the tap water.”
As the world looks to the Great Lakes region as a potential climate change refuge, where a hospitable climate and abundant water could attract waves of newcomers in future decades, Great Lakes advocates say its increasingly imperative to keep algae at bay. And climate change itself could worsen the blooms, making action today even more urgent.
Almost everyone acknowledges fixing the problem will require many more farmers to join Williams in reducing runoff. But they split on a key question: Will enough farmers change their ways without a government mandate to do so?
A lake prone to blooms...and climate change
The widespread blooms that have appeared in Western Lake Erie virtually every year since the 1990s aren’t just unsightly and foul-smelling. They’re dangerous.
The cyanobacteria that cause Lake Erie’s blue-green blooms can produce a liver toxin, microcystis, that causes abdominal pain, headaches, nausea, blisters, even pneumonia. Dogs have died from drinking or swimming in it. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers it a possible carcinogen. And recent research suggests the toxin can go airborne, raising questions about health effects for downwind residents.
Blue-green algae also harms the Lake Erie ecosystem.
As the cyanobacteria die, they settle to the bottom of the lake, creating a feast for microbes that consume oxygen as they devour the remains. That has caused a massive dead zone — an area without enough oxygen for marine life to thrive — in the lake’s central basin. To avoid suffocating, fish are forced to swim to less-desirable habitats.
Today, Lake Erie has the Great Lakes’ most abundant fish population, in part because it is so nutrient-rich. In Ohio alone, recreational fishing for the lake’s prized walleye, perch and other species brings in more than $1 billion a year. But scientists believe a worsening dead zone could bring major long-term consequences for the food web.
While it’s not yet clear how climate change will alter the forces at play in the lake, said Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Ohio’s Heidelberg University, one thing is evident: “The lake is going to get more susceptible to blooms.”
That’s in large part because toxic algae thrive in warm water. The Great Lakes are already warming, and are expected to get still warmer as the climate changes. One EPA study found Lake Erie, already the warmest and shallowest Great Lake, gained .74 degrees between 1995 and 2015.
A study last year found that a two degrees Celsius temperature increase — which scientists expect to see in Lake Erie by 2050 if climate change continues unabated — would cause blooms to start 10 days earlier and grow 23% more intense.
It’s not clear how those changes will affect agriculture. When heavy rain falls after farmers have fertilized their fields, it can send more nutrient-laden runoff gushing into Lake Erie despite farmers’ efforts to reduce overall fertilizer use. On the other hand, warmer temperatures could offset the impacts of heavier rain, hastening evaporation to reduce runoff.
A complex set of factors drives the blooms, from the lake’s shallow warmth, to its artificially-inflated nutrient loads, to the invasive mussels that give cyanobacteria a competitive advantage by devouring other types of algae.
But none is more significant than the heavy loads of phosphorus that pour into the lake from farms, feedlots, lawns and wastewater pipes, providing a ready source of fuel for cyanobacteria. So-called “non-point” sources, such as fertilizer and manure runoff, are responsible for the bulk of those nutrients.
Yet environmental regulators have long hesitated to get tougher on farmers by requiring (and not just asking) them to reduce pollution loads, even as they ratcheted up regulations on factories and sewage treatment plants that are far smaller contributors to the bloom.
The Great Lakes Water Authority, for instance, has spent millions on upgrades at its Detroit wastewater treatment facility in recent years, reducing phosphorus discharges into the Rogue River, which drains into the Detroit River and on to Lake Erie, by 60%. The reductions are a point of pride, said Majid Khan, the authority’s director of wastewater operations. But “in order to see a larger impact (on algae blooms), you need to address the … contribution coming from other sources,” referring to the region’s vast farming operations.
State environmental regulators agree. Reducing farm runoff will be key to meeting the 2025 goal, said Michelle Selzer, Lake Erie coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
“Our focus now,” Selzer said, “is how do we get there?”
The voluntary conservation paradox
At the root of the question lies the Clean Water Act, a revolutionary federal environmental law that has triggered dramatic improvements to water quality in U.S. lakes and streams since the 1970s.
Landmark revisions in 1972 imposed pollution controls on industries that formerly dumped sewage freely into the nation’s waterways, triggering environmental disasters such as the 1969 Rouge and Cuyahoga river fires and polluting Lake Erie so badly that some declared it “dead.”
The Clean Water Act tamped down so-called “point source pollution” from factory drains and sewer pipes. But Congress chose not to regulate pollution from less-direct sources, such as fertilizer that seeps from farms and lawns. That left states and Native American tribes to decide how best to control these “non-point” sources.
Most, including Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, shy away from regulation in favor of promoting programs that pay farmers to voluntarily rein in pollution. Ontario’s plan for Lake Erie also emphasizes voluntary cooperation.
The programs are popular, but underfunded, which means that plenty of farmers willing to participate are left out. One, the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, funded slightly more than a quarter of the applications it received nationally in 2019.
Voluntary conservation proponents say with the right amount of funding, these programs are the best way to solve a complex agricultural pollution problem that presents no simple solutions. No two farms are identical, they reason, making it difficult to impose blanket regulatory requirements. And farmers are at the mercy of weather patterns and soil conditions they can’t control.
“Farms are a whole different beast than going to the Detroit waste plant and saying “OK, you’ve got to put another filter on,’” said Joe Kelpinski of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Regulation becomes even more difficult in a basin that encompasses three states and two countries, with farmers competing internationally to sell their commodities, said Laura Campbell, director of the Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agricultural Ecology Department. That means new regulations in, say, Michigan or Ohio, could create a competitive disadvantage against farmers in other states.
“If a voluntary program is designed right, if it works, a farmer is going to do it because it's right both for them and for the watershed and for their business,” Campbell said.
But current voluntary programs have plenty of critics, who argue that the efforts of willing farmers are wasted if their neighbors can pollute without consequences.
Long-term monitoring in the Maumee River watershed, which runs through a portions of Indiana and Michigan and a huge swath of Ohio before emptying into Lake Erie at Toledo, indicates that the amount of bioavailable phosphorus — the type that feeds algae — entering Lake Erie has generally increased since the mid-1990s.
Some blame worsening rainfall and other factors for those statistics.
Environmentalists point to flaws in the existing system, including a failure to convince the worst-polluting farms to change their ways or keep other farms on board with voluntary practices once short-term government incentives run out. And, they say, some are simply unwilling to change unless someone makes them.
“My biggest concern,” said Tom Zimnicki, water and agriculture program director for the Michigan Environmental Council, “is that we as a society will just become OK with having algae blooms because the bar for the public to accept that is lower than the political will it would take address the ag issue.”
All the while, new feedlots are cropping up throughout the basin, adding manure runoff to “make a bad problem worse,” said Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest advocacy group.
Learner and others argue that lawmakers know voluntary programs won’t work, but are captured by a powerful agricultural industry that spends large sums on political lobbying and lawsuits to keep enforcement off the table. When regulators move to strengthen ag pollution controls, industry groups routinely challenge their authority.
One example: After state officials at EGLE last year moved to curb feedlot manure pollution in Michigan’s waterways, a coalition including the Michigan Farm Bureau sued and filed an administrative appeal, arguing the regulations “have a tenuous relation to water quality.”
The rules already represented a compromise after industry groups called stricter draft regulations “untenable.” The new, more lenient version is now on hold while the two sides await a resolution.
In Ohio, industry opposition helped stymie then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s attempt to ramp up pollution control on farms by designating several watersheds as “distressed” and then restricting fertilizer use.
Few on either side of the aisle — including environmentalists — want to come off as opposing farmers, who consistently poll as one of the most trusted professional groups in America.
But decades of merely asking them to change their practices has failed, said Kristy Meyer, associate director of the Petoskey-based nonprofit Freshwater Future, so “we need to do the unpopular thing.”
“Those that aren’t participating in a program, that aren’t doing the right things, they need to be in a regulatory scheme,” she said.
Ohio, the biggest contributor to Lake Erie’s phosphorus problems because it contains huge swaths of farmland in the largest portion of Western Lake Erie’s drainage basin, operates a voluntary conservation program through its 2019 H2Ohio initiative. There, farmers overseeing 1.09 million acres in the Maumee River Basin, where farm runoff contributes more than 85% of the phosphorus entering Lake Erie, have agreed to make at least one change.
They can pick from a menu of options, including creating a plan to manage nutrients, planting cover crops, adding grassy buffer strips to catch and filter runoff, or changing the way they fertilize. If they keep the change in place for three years, they are supposed to receive payments from the state. So far, the program only has two years of funding.
The hope, said Clark Hutson, who coordinates Ohio’s program, is that the payments will help cover up-front costs of installing nutrient barriers, after which “a certain percentage of producers are going to buy into it, and continue to use this practice long-term.”
In Michigan, some 163,500 acres of Western Lake Erie basin farmland (roughly 3.3% of western basin’s total farmland) are verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, which helps farmers reduce runoff and connects them to federal funding to absorb the costs.
Michigan officials hope if they can expand participation to 350,000 acres, they can meet the state’s phosphorus reduction goals in Lake Erie. But they acknowledge they don’t know whether the target is aggressive enough.
In Ohio, state officials haven’t even set goals for how much farmland must enroll in H2Ohio to meet the 2025 goal.
Even with big nutrient reductions, scientists say, it could take years to see a corresponding improvement in the lake. Some of the phosphorus entering Lake Erie today is likely a remnant of fertilizer applied years ago, said Johnson of Heidelberg University.
A 2017 report led by the University of Michigan Water Center found that achieving necessary nutrient reductions in the Maumee River watershed would require widespread use of conservation efforts.
In one scenario the group analyzed, virtually all row crops in the watershed — some 3 million acres — would need new fertilizer management practice to hit target dissolved phosphorus loads. In another, that acreage could be halved by targeting the heaviest-polluting farms with a mix of several conservation strategies.
“Without some sort of regulation, I don't know if we can get there,” said Don Scavia, the study’s lead author and the former director of the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute.
At the very least, Scavia said, voluntary conservation programs must get better at targeting the watersheds and farms that are doing the most harm to the lake, rather than “doing the right things in the wrong places.”
Other tactics could help, too, he said, such as market incentives that pay farmers more for sustainably-grown crops, federal policy changes or consumer action to drive down demand for meat and ethanol-based gasoline, thereby reducing the incentive to grow commodity grains or operate feedlots.
“Adaptive management” to the rescue?
Environmental regulators in Ohio and Michigan say they plan to improve upon current programs over time.
Michigan’s Lake Erie Adaptive Management Plan, published last year, calls for the state to continue researching the algae problem, adjusting course if necessary. Research will include field-by-field inventories of which landowners are taking pains to reduce runoff, and which aren’t. That, said Selzer of EGLE, will enable conservation officers to recruit producers with the most serious water quality problems.
Selzer said it’s a “valid question” whether Michigan, Ohio and Ontario can meet their goals in Lake Erie with this voluntary approach. But for now, she said, “we’re not going to change course.”
Some environmental groups continue to push for more: Western basin states, they say, must create a pollution diet for Lake Erie, known as a total maximum daily load, then hold agricultural producers accountable for sticking to it.
After years of public pressure and lawsuits by environmentalists, Ohio last year agreed to create a total maximum daily load within the next two to three years. Learner’s group is suing, arguing that timeline “kicks the can down the road,” when Ohio should start enforcing farm pollution limits today.
Michigan has no plans to create its own Lake Erie pollution diet, Seltzer said.
Experience in the Chesapeake Bay suggests diets alone won’t help unless regulators enforce them. Many people cheered the Chesapeake’s total maximum daily load as a milestone toward cleaning up the multi-state estuary. But 11 years later, agricultural runoff still plagues the bay, and several groups are suing the EPA for letting the problem fester.
The climate clock is ticking
After the algae bloom that fouled the drinking water supply for Toledo and a handful of Michigan communities, ratepayers spent about a half-billion dollars to revamp the city’s water system, including some upgrades to turn toxic water drinkable.
To pay for it, customers faced 13-percent rate increases every year for five years, a reality Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz called “morally wrong.”
Water justice advocates say it’s unfair that residents in coastal cities like Toledo, with high poverty rates and large racial minority communities that already contend with industrial pollution, highway exhaust and other environmental justice concerns, must foot the bill to treat Lake Erie’s polluted water while farmers get subsidies for efforts that have failed to stop the blooms.
“These factory farms do the bare minimum to mitigate runoff, sometimes nothing at all, and we’re the ones paying for it,” said Alexis Smith, a Toledo resident and community and a community program and technical associate for Freshwater future.
Toledo, positioned at the Maumee’s mouth in the shallowest, warmest part of Lake Erie, is uniquely vulnerable to the worst of the annual bloom. But if pollution continues unabated and climate change warms the Great Lakes as expected, Kapszukiewicz warned, the bloom could easily threaten other water supplies.
Twenty miles north in Monroe, city water managers constantly monitor the drinking water they draw from Lake Erie for cyanotoxins, and use chemical treatments to strip them out. It comes at a price.
“We track our costs per million gallons of water,” said Barry Laroy, the city’s water director. “During algal bloom season, they tend to skyrocket.”
Last year, during a mild bloom compared to recent years, the added cost came to about $90,000, Laroy said.
The system has never failed. But Monroe has never experienced cyanotoxin levels anywhere near as high as those that tainted Toledo’s water in 2014.
“I’d like to say we could handle it,” said Chris Knight, superintendent of the city’s water treatment plant. “But we just don’t know.”
Kapszukiewicz doesn’t buy arguments that ag pollution problems are too complex to address through regulation, or that doing so would unfairly impact struggling farmers. The real barrier to action, he said, is a lack of will among politicians who win elections by appealing to rural Republican voters.
“Meanwhile, who pays for this, who's essentially at the spigot end of the sewer?” he said. “Big cities like Toledo.”
Taking the long view
On his southern Michigan farm, Jay Williams still believes change is possible. He is turning a profit while taking steps to keep phosphorus out of the lake, he said.
In addition to using cover crops, Williams uses a drone to “spoon feed” fertilizer in targeted areas, rather than spreading it evenly across his fields. He has stopped tilling the soil, which improves soil health and reduces runoff. He maintains a wide strip of grass to filter sediment along the edge of his field. And he has begun pasturing cows on dormant cornfields during winter, where their manure can nourish crops and reduce his need for commercial fertilizer.
Crop yields are slightly lower since he stopped farming erosion-prone areas and converted some land into grassy buffers, but so are the bills he once paid for fuel, maintenance and labor to run a tiller. And over time, he expects to spend less on fertilizer.
“I love growing a great crop,” he said, “but I love growing a profitable crop more.”
Yet old habits die hard, he said, and some farmers need encouragement from a trusted voice. To that end, Williams hosts annual “nutrient management field days” at his farm to give other farmers tips about how to change their practices. More farmers are coming around, he said, but change won’t happen overnight.
“It’s taken a long time to get to where we are now,” he said. “It's going to be a long time implementing practices, and an even longer time seeing the benefits to the lake.”
The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.