Roll-Out of NEMWI’s Lake Erie Water Monitoring Study Continues

An extensive program of policy education and outreach is unfolding following the June release of the Northeast-Midwest Institute’s Lake Erie water monitoring study. The roll-out has included a Capitol Hill briefing, technical and agency briefings, special briefings for partners and funders, and meetings with key Congressional staff.

A Capitol Hill briefing for Congressional staff and other interested officials on July 14 was a key focal point for broadly disseminating the study’s findings. The briefing featured Elin Betanzo, Senior Policy Analyst and lead author on the study, who provided an overview of the study’s findings and recommendations for improving water quality monitoring in the Lake Erie drainage basin. Larry Antosch of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and Lana Pollack of the International Joint Commission joined the briefing to share their perspectives on the study and water data needs for Lake Erie. The speakers agreed that efficient, effective, and coordinated monitoring is essential for evaluating agricultural management practices to improve the health of Lake Erie. The slides from the briefing are available here. An audience of more than 60 attended the briefing.

Building on the Capitol Hill briefing, Elin Betanzo gave a technical presentation of the study findings for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Annex 4 Subcommittee. The webinar provided the Annex 4 Subcommittee members detailed background on the recommendations for improving monitoring, including sampling designs and statistical analysis. A recording of the July 30, 2015 webinar presentation is available here.

As part of its commitment to the region, Elin Betanzo has also provided special briefings for partners and stakeholders, including the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, who represent over 110 mayors and municipal leaders in the U.S. and Canada; the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency; and an upcoming briefing for the Western Lake Erie Basin Partnership. These entities have led efforts to improve management of nutrients in the Lake Erie and broader Great Lakes basins.

As a result of these outreach efforts, the NEMWI’s Lake Erie water monitoring study is already having an impact, with several agencies and non-profits implementing the study’s recommendations to identify new monitoring sites and modify sampling plans:

  • The U.S. Geological Survey used the recommendations to prioritize new monitoring sites in priority areas identified in the report;
  • The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency considered the case study’s monitoring design when revising sampling plans at new monitoring sites to better measure nutrient concentrations and loads; and
  • The Ohio Environmental Council used preliminary case study results to support a budget request for new monitoring in priority locations.

The Northeast-Midwest Institute is working toward further implementing the collaboration and coordination recommendations from the report and has been actively engaged in discussions with Congressional offices, the Council on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Summary of the study

The study, prepared by the Northeast-Midwest Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey, found that current water quality monitoring in the Lake Erie drainage basin is inadequate for evaluating agricultural management practices for improving the health of Lake Erie. The monitoring challenges identified in the Lake Erie drainage basin, such as the lack of overlap between monitoring sites and areas targeted by conservation incentive programs, likely apply in other regions across the country.

The study calls for targeted monitoring in small watersheds and enhanced collaboration and coordination among water monitoring organizations and agriculture agencies within the Lake Erie drainage basin. Such collaboration, the study notes, is essential to efficiently collect the data needed to measure nutrient load reductions to Lake Erie that will prevent future harmful algal blooms such as the one that impaired Toledo’s water supply during the summer of 2014.

The study presents important findings regarding existing water data in the Lake Erie drainage basin:

  • Only 15 of the 1,890 active and historical water quality monitoring sites are located in small (50 square miles and smaller) and large watersheds, and sampled with sufficient frequency to detect reductions in nutrient loads at the watershed scale. Nutrient reductions resulting from agricultural management practices can be measured sooner in small watersheds as compared to larger watersheds. Watersheds 1,000 square miles and larger that drain directly to Lake Erie are responsible for the largest agricultural nutrient loads that contribute to harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie.
  • There is a lack of small watershed monitoring sites in priority areas for water quality monitoring (areas vulnerable to soil loss and with high phosphorus yield), and areas with conservation incentive programs.
  • Active monitoring sites are collecting necessary large watershed data in the Maumee River, Sandusky River, and the River Raisin watersheds. Continued, long-term water quality monitoring is essential in these large agricultural watersheds to detect nutrient load reductions to Lake Erie.

The study presents several strategies for improving efficiencies and results of both water monitoring and conservation incentive programs across the Lake Erie drainage basin.

  • Locate new small watershed monitoring sites and conservation incentive areas in unmonitored high priority watersheds.
  • Identify modifications to existing water monitoring and conservation incentive programs that allow for the most efficient use of small watershed monitoring resources. A coordinating entity should lead this collaborative planning process enlisting both water monitoring and agriculture organizations.
  • For both existing and new water quality monitoring sites, maintain sampling for a minimum of ten years after new agricultural management practices are installed to evaluate their effectiveness in reducing nutrient loading.
  • Substantially increase the use of agricultural management practices to generate statistically significant nutrient load reductions at both small and large watershed scales in the Lake Erie drainage basin.
  • Ensure access to management practice implementation and land use data in monitored watersheds to quantify the relationship between these practices and water quality trends.

The report is the first in a series of three reports evaluating the availability of water data needed to address urgent water policy issues, through the project Toward Sustainable Water Information (more information here).

The next report in this series will examine whether surface water and groundwater data are available to determine whether shale gas development is changing water quality in the Susquehanna River Basin. The NEMWI will continue these investigations by exploring the water-quality data available across the entire Northeast-Midwest region and the types of policy questions these data can inform in a State of the Region report to be released in early 2016.