In a new report, released by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a U.S.-Canada agency that oversees the Great Lakes and other transboundary waters, the current phosphorus targets for Lake Erie and its tributaries are not enough to keep the lake from suffering toxic algal blooms or hypoxic dead zones. The report proposes a 46% cut in the average annual phosphorus load in Lake Erie’s central and western basins to reduce the hypoxic dead zone.
The IJC also gives specific recommendations to state and federal governments in both the United States and Canada. The recommendations focus on reducing phosphorus from the agricultural industry and on reducing dissolved reactive phosphorus. These recommendations include:
- Listing Lake Erie as an impaired waterway under the Clean Water Act, allowing the EPA and state regulatory agencies to set Total Daily Maximum Load for the lake and its tributaries with legal requirements;
- Expanding incentive-based programs encouraging farmers to adopt practices that reduce phosphorus and create restrictions on when and how fertilizer is applied to farms;
- Banning phosphorus fertilizers for lawn care;
- Increasing the amount of green infrastructure in cities; and
- Expanding monitoring programs for water quality in the Lake Erie basin.
The IJC suggests achieving these reductions by applying Public Trust Doctrine. The Public Trust Doctrine, based on ancient governing and legal principles, would establish the Great Lakes as a “commons,” an understanding held by societies that a select group of resources – air, hunting grounds, water ways, including rivers, oceans, and lakes – are so vital that they are community assets that are to be collectively shared and protected. The IJC views the Public Trust Doctrine as a necessary legal tool that would provide local governments the authority to protect the waters from any source that may cause harm.
According to FLOW, an environmental organization in Michigan who also advocates the use of the Public Trust Doctrine for the Great Lakes, “the public trust guarantees each person as a member of the public the right to fish, boat, swim, and recreate in Lake Erie, and to enjoy the protection of the water quality and quantity of these waters, free of impairment. The effects of harmful algal blooms – from “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic species, to toxic secretions that close beaches and pose health hazards to boaters, fishers, and swimmers – are clear violations of the public trust. Thus, as sworn guardians of the Great Lakes waters under the public trust, the states have a duty to take reasonable measures to restore the water quality and ensure that the public can fully enjoy their protected water uses.”
While the report has been transmitted to governments in both the United States and Canada, the IJC does not have the authority to take further action.