Nutrient Pollution

Photo credit: NOAA GLERL

Nutrient pollution is an excellent example of how important balance is to the health of ecosystems. Aquatic organisms need nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in the water in order to thrive. Algae and aquatic plants feed on these nutrients, and in turn they produce food for fish, shellfish, and other organisms. Nutrients in the water help to sustain the fisheries of the Great Lakes, which create enormous recreational and economic benefits for the region.

But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen enter the water each year, most of it the result of runoff from agricultural lands. These excess nutrients feed the growth of algae to the point at which large “blooms” of algae form, which can be toxic to aquatic life as well as pets and even people. In 2014, for example, residents of Toledo, Ohio, lost access to their source of municipal drinking water because a large harmful algal bloom had formed in Lake Erie right by the city’s water intake. The city’s population of more than half a million people were without municipal water for nearly three days.

Binational efforts to fix this problem are directed by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. States and provinces play a crucial role in managing their water resources – enacting laws, promulgating regulations, and appropriating program funding to assure that their residents never again lose access to clean, affordable drinking water because of the growth of toxic algae.

What is the GLLC Doing?

In 2018, the GLLC adopted a policy agenda that identified nutrient pollution as one of the key issues for the Caucus as an organization. Specifically, the GLLC committed to the following:

  • Work with agricultural organizations to encourage the use of best practices for reducing nutrient runoff from agricultural land into the lakes and their tributaries
  • Encourage infrastructure improvements to reduce nutrient runoff, including the installation of green infrastructure

To underscore the importance of this issue to the region, the GLLC selected nutrient pollution as the focus of the inaugural Patricia Birkholz Institute for Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Policy. These “deep dives” into a specific issue on the GLLC policy agenda are named in memory of the late Patricia (Patty) Birkholz, a former Michigan senator and founder of the GLLC.

Task Force on Nutrient Management

In 2019, state and provincial legislators who were selected as Birkholz Fellows participated in two web meetings to obtain background information on the problem of nutrient pollution and potential solutions, then capped off their deep dive into the issue with a weekend workshop in Detroit on October 25-27.

Birkholz Fellows toured the world-class wastewater treatment facility operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority in Detroit.
Legislators learned about cover crops as a best management practice for keeping nutrients in the ground.
Michigan legislators called attention to the sign verifying that Darling Farms in Monroe employs environmentally friendly practices.

Following the institute, the Birkholz Fellows took the lead for the GLLC in collaborating on options for coordinated, regional action to improve the management of nutrients to keep them out of the region’s waterways. The Task Force on Nutrient Management has produced a GLLC resolution and an action plan identifying priorities for the organization to achieve the goal of reducing nutrient pollution. In September 2020, the task force recommended, and the GLLC Executive Committee approved, a set of model policies for states and provinces to implement to help solve this significant problem for the Great Lakes, their tributaries, and other waterbodies in the region.

The task force is continuing its work with efforts to implement the recommended policies as well as educate GLLC members about effective state and provincial programs for reducing nutrients.

Position Statements and Correspondence

Resources on this Website

For More Information

Eriestat on Blue Accounting Web Page on Nutrients (Annex 4 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement)