U.S., Canada To Address Great Lakes Ag Nutrient Levels

On September 7, an amended version of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), which has been under debate since 2005, was agreed upon by the governments of the U.S. and Canada, setting the stage for increased environmental scrutiny on farming operations in the region for the foreseeable future.

The agreement’s stated purpose is “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes” by implementing a virtual elimination, zero discharge policy regarding chemicals and nutrients.

While the agreement is wide-ranging and deals with a multitude of non-ag and plant and wildlife issues unique to the Great Lakes region, agriculture is cited throughout as a primary source of “chemicals of mutual and emerging concern” (PCB’s, Dioxin, Mercury and Chlordane) that harm fish and wildlife populations.

Nutrient Levels

Annex No. 4 of the agreement directly addresses water nutrient levels, zeroing in on the run-off of phosphorus (P) from agriculture operations within any of the five Great Lakes watershed basins.

“This is the one annex where agriculture is specifically mentioned, and the fact that nutrient runoff in the Great Lakes is identified as a primary issue, and ag is identified as a primary source, is important to note,” said Dale Phenicie, an environmental regulatory affairs consultant contracting with the Mid America CropLife Association (MACA).

According to Phenicie, the agreement establishes lake-wide loading targets for total P concentrations in open waters for each Great Lake. For the purpose of the agreement, Lake Erie is split into three individual basins, Western, Central and Eastern, each with its own P load target.

“There’s a little bit of something for everybody in this annex. Not only are they looking at agricultural sources of phosphorus, but there’s also a section that deals with urban sources, non-farm point and non-point sources, as well as agriculture sources,” said Phenicie. “So, I guess that was their attempt to address the nutrient issue on a broad basis.”

As for how the agreement will affect agriculture and retailers located within those watershed areas, Phenicie predicts increased EPA regulation for the industry going forward. According to Steve Taylor, MACA water consultant, there is still much to be determined. 

“Until this all goes forward we don’t know specifics just yet, but I think the potential is there for impacting the folks that deal with those pesticides and farm chemicals in that area,” said Taylor. “Not only that, but like we’ve seen with the Chesapeake Bay and other regions, the EPA likes to take what they learn here and apply it to other parts of the country, so we could certainly see this expand beyond the Great Lakes.”

Numeric nutrient criteria levels, similar to regulations already in place in the Chesapeake Bay region and other areas, as well as advocating tail water recovery reservoirs, filter strips and the removal of land from production, were all floated as possible solutions by the two experts.

More information on the agreement is expected in time for the November 7-8 MACA meeting in St. Louis, MO, where Phenicie will present on the topic.

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