A new plan to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake ...

A new plan to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie pits farmers against Detroiters

algal bloom in moderate summer

State’s plan prioritizes upgrades to Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant over agricultural runoff.

Western Lake Erie’s annual algal bloom has begun. And though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) forecasts it to be moderate this year, the yearly growth of green slime is not going away anytime soon.

The annual phenomenon that threatens wildlife, recreation, and drinking water is driven in large part by too much phosphorus from fertilizer and wastewater being delivered into the system from a massive watershed area that includes much of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, as well as parts of Ontario, Canada. 

That phosphorus feeds algal blooms that release microcystin toxins, which can contaminate drinking water supplies. That’s what happened in 2014 when the city of Toledo issued in a “no drink” advisory for 450,000 people that lasted nearly three days.

In 2018, Michigan developed a Domestic Action Plan to reduce pollution in Lake Erie by 40% by 2025 in order to meet water quality targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency to fight against the annual algal bloom. 

Then in 2019, a University of Michigan scientists developed a watershed assessment to pinpoint how much of that phosphorus loading was coming from Detroit, and what sources are contributing to it. The study found that Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant contributes 23% of the Detroit River watershed’s phosphorus contribution to Lake Erie. 

lake erie pollution sources

Source: University of Michigan

The pie chart shows the relative amounts of phosphorus that come from different parts of watershed. Colors in the pie chart correspond to the map at right. The Thames and Sydenham river watersheds are primarily agricultural, while the Clinton and Rouge are mostly urban. The Great Lakes Water Authority’s Water Resource Recovery Facility (GLWA WRRF) in Detroit is one of the largest wastewater treatment facilities in North America and serves 77 communities. Some of the phosphorous inputs that flow through Lake St. Clair are retained and removed from the water, which is not accounted for in this figure. Accounting for retention in Lake St. Clair slightly increases the relative contribution of downstream sources, such as the WRRF in Detroit, that do not pass through Lake St. Clair before entering Lake Erie. To learn more about the project that developed this graph, visit: myumi.ch/detroit-river 

In March, the state released another plan informed by the 2019 UM study —  Michigan’s Adaptive Management Plan for Lake Erie. The plan focuses on reducing phosphorus loads from four wastewater treatment plants in the region to stem the reduction in phosphorus inputs from the Detroit River. The majority of the loading comes from Detroit’s plant, the Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF), which has already reduced its load by 51% since 2008 according to the UM study.

In the last decade and a half, over $1 billion has been spent in sewage overflow controls in the city of Detroit. Money to invest in upgrades and overflow controls for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) comes from the water bills of Detroit residents, some of whom pay 10-20% of their income on water, despite the EPA recommended 4.5% limit. Community members have raised concerns about the focus on upgrading DWSD and the effect this might have on increasing costs to Detroit’s vulnerable residents. 

Nick Leonard, executive director at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, says that the plan’s focus on reducing wastewater treatment plant pollution, and not agricultural nutrient runoff pollution, is affecting water rates for Detroiters. 

Recent studies show that point sources like wastewater treatment plants represent 10-20% of nutrient contributions found in Lake Erie overall; the vast majority comes from agricultural runoff.

Despite contributing only a fraction of the pollution, Leonard points out that DWSD has already accounted for about half of the reductions made so far toward EGLE’s goal. EGLE’s continued focus on reducing point source pollution is concerning to Leonard.

“It’s really exacerbating the water affordability crisis,” he told Planet Detroit. 

In comments submitted to EGLE, Leonard explains he wants to see the agency shift focus from urban wastewater treatment plant customers to agricultural polluters. 

By focusing on DWSD “they’re asking Detroiters, who are a low-income community made almost primarily of Black people to bear the bulk of that responsibility,” he said.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department serves residents of Detroit, as well as 22 other wholesale customers, including the cities of Dearborn, Allen Park, and Grosse Pointe. A recent report found that more than 80% of people served by the DWSD live outside of Detroit, but suburbanites combined cover just 17% of the total cost of upgrades and maintenance on the system. The other 83% is charged to residents of the City of Detroit, according to court documents. 

And since 2007, Detroit’s water bills have doubled, with the average family of four paying $1,151 annually. 

“We’re kind of always operating at a loss,” Nadia Gaber M.D.., a researcher working with We The People’s community research collective, told Planet Detroit.  Gaber points out that because the City of Detroit charges a wholesale rate to suburban cities “the profits never return back to the City of Detroit” to help support system maintenance and upgrades.

This relationship with suburban customers, Gaber says, “leaves the city unable to get revenue from most of the water distribution by volume that they are providing, while residents in the city of Detroit are charged a retail rate for the water that they use.”

She adds that suburban customers often think their rates are so high because of Detroit, but it’s often their own municipalities that mark up the wholesale prices to fund local water projects.

Detroit has shut off water to more than 150,000 homes since 2014 for nonpayment. The coronavirus pandemic prompted state and city leaders to issue a moratorium on shutoffs in late March. In July, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit to ban water shutoffs permanently and force Detroit to develop an affordable water plan. 

“Detroit’s made massive reductions in loading, and there’s only so much you can ratchet down at a wastewater treatment plant,” Tom Zimnicki, a program director at the Michigan Environmental Council, told Planet Detroit.

EGLE officials say they are just going by the numbers.  Phil Argiroff, Assistant Director for the Water Resources Division of EGLE, says points sources, mainly the WWRF, are to blame for the pollution coming from the Detroit River. At other locations, such as River Raisin and Maumee River, pollution is driven by non-point sources, so the state is focused more on agricultural runoff there. 

“When you look at the Detroit River it’s largely a load of phosphorus that’s based on point sources, so we’re addressing it with point sources,” Argiroff told Planet Detroit.

“The EPA dictates how many metric tons of reduction is necessary, and at what location. Of the 750 metric tons reduction necessary, the EPA determined 500 tons had to be reduced specifically at the mouth of the Detroit River,” he added. 

University of Michigan researchers estimate that this year’s algal bloom will measure in at 4.5 in severity. Anything above five is considered “severe”, but researchers say we shouldn’t take it as a sign of progress towards EGLE’s phosphorus reduction goal, because year-to-year changes in blooms are driven by spring rainfall. 

When Planet Detroit asked Zimnicki if he thought EGLE’s plan would meet their reduction goals by 2025, Zimnicki gave a resounding “No.” That’s because programs from EGLE for farmers to reduce agricultural pollution are entirely volunteer-based.

EGLE’s agricultural action plan includes providing technical and financial assistance to farmers, educating them on good conservation practices, and encouraging them to build more riparian buffers. But there are no consequences for non-compliance.

“What we have seen throughout other states and other regions as well as in Michigan is that voluntary programs consistently fail to deliver needed water quality outcomes,” he said. 

Leonard believes a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is necessary to address this issue and says they’ve been successful in the past at addressing problems from non-point sources. 

TMDLs are developed by calculating the maximum amount of pollutants that can enter a waterway while meeting water quality standards, and then setting limits to all of the pollutants, point- and nonpoint source, that contribute to that waterbody. “It really is the tool to get at nonpoint sources,” he said. 

Zimnicki would like to see increased accountability and enforcement measures in the plan, as well as increased monitoring to determine the efficacy of the voluntary agricultural programs.

“We have to at some point recognize that we need to take more robust action against agricultural entities,” he said.

8/8/20: This story was updated to clarify that the University of Michigan study found that 23% of  Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant contributes 23% of the Detroit River’s watershed phosphorus contribution to Lake Erie, not the entire watershed’s contribution.