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Agency seeks tough rules to reduce Lake Erie algae

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The U.S. and Canada should crack down on sources of phosphorus runoff blamed for a rash of harmful algae blooms on Lake Erie, an advisory agency said Thursday. The algae produce harmful toxins and contribute to oxygen-deprived "dead zones" where fish cannot survive.

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File - In this Oct. 5, 2011, file satellite photo from a NASA website are algae blooms on Lake Erie. A U.S.-Canadian agency urged both nations on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, to crack down on big farms and other sources of phosphorus that is believed responsible for a rash of algae blooms on Lake Erie. Runaway algae is a worsening problem on Lake Erie and some bays of Lakes Huron and Michigan. (AP Photo/NASA, File)

The International Joint Commission said in a report that urgent steps are needed to curb runaway algae — a problem that led both nations to reach their first agreement to improve Great Lakes water quality more than 40 years ago, when some considered Erie ecologically dead.

Tougher standards for municipal and industrial waste treatment produced improvements by reducing the flow into the lake of phosphorus on which algae feeds. But the problem began worsening in the late 1990s. In 2011, the largest mass on record formed in the lake's western basin, eventually reaching more than 100 miles from Toledo to Cleveland.

"What happened in 2011 was such a shock that people realize more of the same is just not tolerable," said Lana Pollack, chairwoman of the commission's U.S. section. "If we can get the governments to take action on this report, it will make a big difference."

The report says different sources of phosphorus runoff have emerged — primarily large farms, where manure and other fertilizers are washed into tributary rivers during storms and snowmelt. They accounted for more than half of the phosphorus that reached the lake in 2011, while one-third came from smaller farms and nearshore communities as well as city sewers.

More intense storms likely caused by climate change are sweeping more nutrients into the lake, the report said. Additionally, unlike decades ago, much of the phosphorus dissolves in water, making it easier for algae to consume.

The report sets targets for sharp reductions in phosphorus runoff over three to six years, including a 46 percent decrease in total phosphorus and a 78 percent cut in the dissolved type for the lake's central and western basins.

To reach those goals, governments in both countries should require "best management practices" that reduce the amount of phosphorus applied to fields and slow the flow of water to drainage systems, the report says. One step should be to ban spreading manure on frozen or snow-covered ground, it says.

Another proposal would link the cost and availability of government-subsidized crop insurance to farmers' willingness to curb phosphorus runoff.

"The idea is that if you're contributing to pollution, you're going to pay more," Pollack said. "There's really a strong need to change agricultural practices, or else just say you're going to sacrifice Lake Erie."

The report also calls for prohibiting nearly all use of phosphorus fertilizers for lawn care, and for additional study and monitoring of sewage plants and other facilities that discharge into the lake.

The goals are challenging but achievable, said Raj Bejankiwar, a commission scientist who led development of the report.

"Lake Erie was in a worse situation in the '60s and '70s ... and both nations took action and the lake came back," he said. "We've done it before and it's doable now."

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