Achieving the promise of the GLWQA
The Nutrient Annex & municipal sewage infrastructure
By Dan McDermott, Chapter Director
Nutrient loading is a growing and chronic Great Lakes problem. In the Lake Erie context, nutrient fed algal blooms have approached crisis levels in recent years. The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) identifies the need for binational action to prevent further deterioration of the lakes and mandates action to reduce phosphorus loading. Today’s blue-green algal blooms and fish die offs are reviving memories of the time not long ago when Lake Erie was adjudged to be biologically dead.
In September 2012, Canada and the United States entered into a substantive GLWQA commitment to address various Great Lakes issues, including nutrient loading. The Agreement’s Nutrient Annex has as its primary driver timelines specifically set for actions related to Lake Erie. Accompanying these deadlines is the clear targeting of the municipal wastewater sector for action.
The choice made by the Parties as to the sectorial focus of their phosphorus reduction plan is easy to deduce. The easiest entities for a senior level of government to direct are junior levels of government. It is also easier to regulate large centralized sources of pollution than multiple decentralized ones.
Why is Lake Erie’s nutrient problem the dominant commitment in the GLWQA’s Nutrient Annex?
Objectively, the growth of algal blooms in Lake Erie is a potential environmental crisis. While algal blooms were stabilized for almost three decades, 2011 saw an enormous amount of runoff which resulted in dangerously high blooms once again. Drought conditions in the summer of 2012, however, resulted in less runoff into the lake than had occurred the year previous. This resulted in reduced algal concentrations than had been the case in 2011. Nutrient loading and the resulting algal bloom problem is increasing throughout the Great Lakes (including 2012 algal blooms & hypoxic zones in southeast Georgian Bay). The Agreement’s commitment to action in the Lake Erie context is clear and date specific. Action to address nutrient loading in the other lakes is given a lower priority but is nonetheless present. Lake Erie is afforded the status within the Nutrient Annex of the Great Lakes version of the ‘canary in the coal mine’.
In political or geographic terms, it is obvious that the nutrient and Lake Erie priorities are principally those of the United States. Media coverage of the algal bloom crisis as well as public, governmental and NGO calls for action has been most pronounced in the US and especially within the State of Ohio. Sierra Club in the US has declared Lake Erie to be the primary focus of its Great Lakes campaigning.
The Canadian voice has been more muted regarding the Lake Erie crisis possibly reflecting the fact of the much greater population density of the US side of the lake. The governmental voice has also been a quieter one. The Government of Canada’s announcement of the 2012 GLWQA was general making no specific mention of the Lake Erie commitment.
Municipal Wastewater Infrastructure and the GLWQA Nutrient Annex
The GLWQA Nutrient Annex work plan for reducing phosphorus loading in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is clearly a work in progress. The focus on achieving loading reductions through upgrades to municipal sewage infrastructure is clear, the plan for realizing reductions from all other contributing sectors is far less clear at this time. The environmental opportunity immediately at hand for Great Lakes advocates is to ensure that the promise of reduced phosphorus emissions from municipal wastewater systems is realized.
This will be no small achievement. Progress in generating the political will necessary to secure the substantial investments needed to realize the goal of Great Lakes that are “drinkable, fishable and swimmable” has been slow. The needed investments to municipal wastewater systems measure in the billions of dollars and have long been hostage to the truism that “new sewers make for poor ribbon cutting ceremonies”.
The Nutrient Annex focus on sewage infrastructure is a potential game changer. Through the force of this binational commitment, Great Lakes advocates now have a powerful tool in hand with which to achieve significant environmental gains that would otherwise be unobtainable.