© 2023 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Winning “3rd Battle of Lake Erie” hinges on dramatically reducing phosphorus run-off

Jeff Reutter

“Right now we’re fighting the third battle of Lake Erie,” Dr. Jeffrey Reutter tells Kirk Heinze on Greening of the Great Lakes. “We fought the first battle during the War of 1812. The second battle was during the 1970’s. The Cuyahoga River burned in 1969, which was the bellwether moment in this country when many people became fed up with pollution and the state of our environment. The next year the U.S. EPA and NOAA were formed, and we had the first Earth Day.”

Reutter is The Ohio State University special adviser to the Ohio Sea Grant College Program and former director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab. An aquatic biologist, limnologist and educator, he has spent over four decades committed to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem in general and Lake Erie in particular.

“Now we’re in the third battle of Lake Erie,” Reutter says.  Steadily increasing concentrations of phosphorus, a vital nutrient for both agriculture crops and home lawns, have caused a concomitant increase in the occurrence and severity of algal blooms, he explains. 

“Since the mid 90’s, we’ve seen the larger concentrations of dissolved phosphorous, the type of phosphorous that is 100 percent available to the algae.  Harmful algal blooms are up 150 percent since the late 90’s. The worst blooms we had ever seen occurred in 2011. And then in 2015 we exceeded even those. 

“So things are still not headed in the right direction. We need to reduce the amount of phosphorous that’s coming in, which is very much what we had to do in the 70’s. In those days, the vast majority was coming from sewage treatment. The challenge for us is that instead of working with a dozen or so sewage treatment plants, today we need to be working with thousands of farmers because the vast majority – not all, but the vast majority - of the phosphorous is coming from agricultural runoff.”

Reutter says that because Lake Erie is the shallowest and southern-most of the Great Lakes, and thus the warmest, it is especially susceptible to these blooms.

“Our watershed around Lake Erie is also the watershed that contains the most agriculture, urban and suburban land, and the least forest. Those attributes mean that Lake Erie is going to get more nutrients than any of the other Great Lakes.”

Reutter is very concerned about Trump administration proposals to reduce funding for the EPA and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

“I’m hopeful that as they learn more about the importance of this and similar initiatives and why they’re in place, that in future years those things will be restored. And immediately I’m hopeful that our Congressional delegations around the Great Lakes – and really around the country – will see the error in these recommendations and will restore that funding.”

He explains why restoring Lake Erie is a good example of protecting our environment while simultaneously boosting the local tourism and fishing economy.

“Our goal has to be to keep agricultural production high but keep the nutrients on the fields. And a lot of research shows that we can do that. Some of the research on farmers’ attitudes reveals that about a third of the farmers are already doing what they should be doing. Another third are poised to do the right thing in the near future. But then you have that [remaining] third that’s out there—and it’s going to take something different – regulations or incentives – to really make them do what needs to be done.

“The vast majority of farmers want to do the right thing. We simply have to give them the help or encouragement or requirement to do so.”

Greening of the Great Lakes airs inside MSU Today Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 94.5 FM and AM 870.

A special thanks to those who helped us unlock $50,000 this past Giving Tuesday. If you haven't supported the news reporting of this station yet, now is the best time to give. Support your favorite community public station today.