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Canada moves on climate-enhanced algae blooms in Great Lakes

Christa Marshall, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Canada announced $16 million in funding yesterday to control toxic algal blooms in the Great Lakes, a problem that analysts say is exacerbated by climate change.

The money came as part of a new Great Lakes Nutrient Initiative from Environment Canada, an arm of the national government. The funds, which will be spread over four years, are aimed at curbing phosphorus runoff from farms and wastewater effluents that spawn blue-green algal blooms in Lake Erie, the smallest and shallowest of the lakes.

The blooms largely ebbed after 1970s-era limits on phosphorus in household detergents but have resurged in recent years, causing "dead zones" and gloppy messes that have washed ashore in tourist areas on both sides of the border.

"Toxic and nuisance algae are back with a vengeance. They're increasing water treatment costs. They're threatening tourism, recreation and commercial fishing," said Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent in a speech yesterday in Toronto announcing the initiative.

The funds were not outlined in detail and do not set new mandates, but Kent said they will allow expanded monitoring of nutrients and "enhance research." The Canadian government said the additional research will help honor pledges made last month as part of an updated 1972 agreement on Great Lakes water quality (ClimateWire, Sept. 10).

Heavy rains, warming water worsen conditions

Then, the two countries said they would establish phosphorus reduction targets for Lake Erie broadly within three years. Those would build on existing regulations, such as U.S. EPA's permit  program limiting nutrient pollution from man-made ditches and pipes.

Climate change plays into phosphorus-driven blooms in several ways, said James Bruce, a Canadian meteorologist who played a central role in crafting the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada.

Warm water not only provides a perfect environment for algal blooms, but it can cause fish kills because dying algae gobble up oxygen when they falls to the bottom of the lakes, Bruce said. In recent years, the lakes have been stratifying earlier in the year with mild springs, meaning that there is a longer period when the lakes have a sharp contrast between warm waters at their surface and cold waters near their bottoms.

That stratification also can reduce oxygen levels in the lakes by preventing mixing of air throughout the water body, he said.

Bruce said climate change also poses a threat via heavy rainfall, which can push more phosphorus into the Great Lakes by flushing septic systems, urban surfaces, manure and farms using fertilizers.

"Climate change is going to make this much, much worse," he said.

In addition to Lake Erie, which warms quickly because of its shallowness, algal blooms have pestered areas such as Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. The blooms became a major problem again about five years ago, Bruce said.

Playing 'catch-up' in tracking causes

Bruce welcomed the Canadian funds but said the government should be doing more to enact new regulations, such as stricter rules on the application of fertilizer.

Anastasia Lintner, a staff lawyer at Ecojustice in Canada, said the money should help because Canada falls far behind the United States in its understanding of phosphorus levels in Great Lakes tributaries. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to develop regulations, she said.

Researchers know how much certain nutrients are in the lakes but don't know fully "which tributaries they are flowing through to get there, and which exact sources they are coming from in Canada," Lintner said.

Canada is "playing catch-up" by following U.S. funding of nutrient issues via the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program launched in 2009 that has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to U.S. localities, she said. There is Canadian regulation of large point sources of phosphorus -- such as buildings releasing wastewater -- but there are mainly voluntary measures otherwise, she said.

The updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, meanwhile, is facing some criticism even though it included a new climate change annex.

In an editorial in the Toronto Star last month, Bruce said the agreement lacked the "hard number goals" of previous versions of the agreement. The climate change annex, while welcome, is not well integrated with other sections of the agreement on public health and nutrient pollution, he said.

"The agreement puts off for further negotiation the setting of any clear targets or indicators for their protection," Bruce wrote.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500


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