DAVID A ULLRICH
DEPUTY REGIONAL ADMINISTRATOR, REGION 5
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
August 5, 2002
Good morning Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. I am David Ullrich, Deputy Regional Administrator and Acting Regional Counsel for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5. I am here today representing Thomas V. Skinner, EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Manager. I thank the Committee for the opportunity to speak with you today regarding a potentially troubling change in the Lake Erie ecosystem.
In my testimony today I will present a brief summary of the current situation and EPA’s response to what we think may be occurring in the lake. I will try to address the Committee’s questions regarding why anoxia is occurring in the central basin of Lake Erie, the effect of anoxia on the Lake Erie ecosystem, and solutions to prevent anoxia from occurring in the future. I will also be submitting for the record the Lake Erie Lakewide Management Plan, the proposal for the Lake Erie Supplemental Study of Trophic Status, and a copy of the Great Lakes Strategy. All of these documents will be explained during this presentation.
It was little over two decades ago that the U.S. and Canada spent literally billions of dollars on intensive efforts to upgrade sewage treatment plants, ban phosphorus from detergents, and improve agricultural nutrient management practices, all of which helped to bring Lake Erie back from the brink of disaster to one of the greatest environmental successes to date. Today, instead of sitting here in Cleveland on the shores of a dead lake, we now see the effects of a true environmental renaissance here on the Lake Erie shoreline. We can see the fruits of this economic rebirth that has been spurred by the clean up and revitalization of the Cuyahoga River and of the lake itself. We have given the Lake Erie citizens back their lake along with the attendant recreational and economic opportunities, not the least of which is a billion dollar world-class walleye fishery.
To maintain this success, EPA continues to monitor nutrient levels as part of the Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) annual intensive monitoring program. And because this program is in place, we started noticing troubling signs of a change in Lake Erie in the 1990s. Total phosphorus measurements, always considered a good indicator of the health of the lake, started to increase, after years of decrease. These results are corroborated by Canadian data. Perhaps more telling was the return of very low oxygen levels in a large area in the central basin of Lake Erie. This condition, whose technical name is “anoxia”, has gained the term “the dead zone.”
The appearance of the “dead zone” is not a new problem; it is something that EPA is quite familiar with and has successfully addressed in the past. But there is a new twist to the problem this time around. Our past experience identified external loadings of nutrients, principally phosphorus, as the main reason for the existence of anoxic conditions in the lake. EPA’s Office of Research and Development helped create the models that set the targets for reduction of phosphorus to alleviate the anoxic condition in the lake. Once we reached these targets, the lake responded accordingly. Currently, however, our available information does not indicate any substantial or significant increases in loadings of phosphorus or other nutrients to Lake Erie from external sources. So something different seems to be taking place.
One may rightly ask if we should be concerned about these changes in Lake Erie. My answer to that is an emphatic yes. We should be concerned because there are a number of possible large-scale and potentially very costly impacts due to the changes we are observing. These changes could include:
< Impacts on the Lake Erie Fishery and Other Wildlife: There are indications that a variety of changes are taking place that may seriously impact the Lake Erie fishery. Larger areas and/or increased duration of reduced oxygen levels in the water could lead to reductions in the food base for fish populations, such as walleye. We also have recent indications that burrowing mayfly larvae, another part of the food base for many Lake Erie fish populations are being severely diminished along the edges of the lake’s central basin. These losses indicate that future reductions of fish populations may occur.
We have also seen four straight years of large-scale fish and bird die-offs, partly due to type E botulism which was last seen in the Great Lakes in the 1960s but had never been found in Lake Erie. Mud puppies, an aquatic salamander, sheepshead, rock bass and smallmouth bass have all experienced kills during this period.
At the same time, avian botulism has caused the deaths of thousands of water birds, including common loons and ring-billed gulls.
The presence of botulism in the lake may be due to the impact of exotic species, such as the round goby, and the quagga and zebra mussels.
Such changes in the Lake Erie ecosystem as outlined above could lead to the formation of a fishery from one dominated by top sport fish such as walleye and salmon to one dominated by bottom feeders. Such a change would have serious implications for Lake Erie’s billion-dollar fishery.
< Beach Closures and Loss of Recreational Opportunities: We are observing many impacts of increased phosphorus levels in the lake, including large, unsightly and smelly mats of algae called Cladophora washing up on beaches, leading to beach closures and seriously impacting recreational opportunities for Lake Erie residents.
< Impacts on Drinking Water Quality: Microcystis blooms (a form of blue-green algae) are also occurring. These blooms are thought to be a direct result of a combination of over-enrichment of the lake and the zebra mussel infestation. As these large blooms die and sink to the bottom, they commonly release chemicals that can produce a foul odor and musty taste that can be detected in tap water.
< Present and Future Impacts of Exotic Species: If these changes are related to zebra mussel invasion of the Lake, then what we are observing may be the tip of the iceberg. As other exotic species establish themselves, the Lake may go through continual disruptions in its biology.
< Lake Erie is the proverbial “Canary in the Coal Mine”: Due to its relatively short water retention time, Lake Erie is ecologically susceptible and often the first of the Great Lakes affected by chemical and biological change. It is a bellwether for parts of the other Great Lakes, especially for shallow embayments such as Saginaw Bay, Michigan and Green Bay, Wisconsin.
So, clearly there are ample reasons to justify our concerns regarding the changes in the Lake Erie ecosystem. But why is this happening again and what is different about the current situation as compared to the problem in the 1960's, 70's, and 80's?
Many scientists suspect that zebra mussels and other exotic species such as round gobies are starting to reshape Lake Erie's ecosystem in ways that lake researchers have yet to fully fathom. Others theorize that the lake may be suffering from the combined effects of increased temperatures and lower lake levels. Whatever the reason, I am here today to assure this Committee and the public that EPA is keenly aware of the reoccurrence of this problem and that we are already taking steps to address many of the concerns raised in this hearing through activities that have been underway for some time. I will elaborate on two of these.
In response to our identification of rising levels of phosphorus in Lake Erie, GLNPO has undertaken the $2M Lake Erie Supplemental Study of Trophic Status which began on June 17, 2002, and which is being cooperatively funded and managed by GLNPO ($500,000), Environment Canada, and a roster of the preeminent Lake Erie experts from more than 20 universities and institutions, including Ohio University, the Ohio State University, and Case Western Reserve University among others.
EPA is very pleased by the level of commitment of the researchers involved in this study. We view the study results as the critical element in our ability to address the issue of Lake Erie’s changing ecosystem.
Mr. Chairman, I feel strongly that the Lake Erie Supplemental Study of Trophic Status, which is currently funded, already underway, and being conducted in full cooperation with the Canadian government will help us identify, if not answer, many of the questions this committee has raised, and will help guide our solutions.
The other effort which must be mentioned is the Lake Erie Lakewide Management Plan, or LaMP, that has been underway since 1995 and which includes participation by both Canadian and U.S. Federal, Provincial, State, and non-governmental organizations.
LaMPs are required under the 1987 amendments to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, originally signed by the United States and Canada in 1972. This historic agreement, created under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada committed both countries "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem”. There is also a statutory requirement in the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990 that requires EPA to develop LaMPs for each of the Great Lakes.
LaMPs are cooperative binational plans of action to assess, restore, protect and monitor the health of the individual Great Lakes. They are used to coordinate the work of the many governmental and non-governmental partners involved in managing the Great Lakes. EPA and Environment Canada are the federal co-leads for the Lake Erie LaMP. Other LaMP member agencies include 6 state and 3 federal agencies in the U.S., 3 provincial and 3 federal agencies in Canada, and one binational commission.
LaMPs are shining examples of the ecosystem approach -- the belief that management efforts should address environmental, economic and social factors in an integrated manner along ecological, rather than geopolitical, boundaries.
The Lake Erie LaMP has already developed measures and recommendations to improve water quality, environmental quality, recreation, fish and wildlife habitats, and has identified remedies to address associated problems in the Lake Erie basin. The LaMP considers all existing relevant programs at all levels of government as well as at non-governmental agencies that can be used to implement the required remedial actions. And more importantly, the actions identified in the LaMP have been approved by the Canadian and U.S. federal, state and provincial agencies involved in the effort.
In terms of phosphorus and other nutrients, it is the goal of the Lake Erie LaMP that inputs from both point and non-point sources be managed to ensure that loadings are within bounds of sustainable watershed management. Currently, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement allows a maximum of 11,000 metric tons per year of phosphorus loadings from point and nonpoint sources.
The Lake Erie Supplemental Study of Trophic Status will work with the LaMP to inform and support its goals for addressing nutrient issues within the basin, as well as other LaMP goals which seek to address problems related to water quality and environmental quality.
I want to also mention that the work we are doing in Lake Erie supports the goals and objectives of the multi-agency U.S. Policy Committee’s Great Lakes Strategy 2002 which was announced by EPA Administrator Whitman on April 2, 2002. This Strategy is a shared expression of the partners at the U.S. federal, state, and tribal levels of government, working together to restore and protect the Great Lakes.
Given that we are aware of the problem, that we have a scientific study in place to help us understand the situation and the decision support system required, and we have the LaMP as the proper delivery mechanism for the needed actions, what should our next steps be?
We need to develop a full understanding of the relationship between external phosphorus inputs and the anoxia problem. There is no indication at this time that loadings from any sources have increased. There may be a need for more intensive monitoring of tributaries to Lake Erie and for a review of point source permits and compliance with their limits to see if there are facilities that may be inadvertently contributing to the present change in conditions. Before re-examining the phosphorus targets for Lake Erie we need to, at the very least, insure that existing programs to control and reduce point and nonpoint sources of nutrients to Lake Erie are fully implemented.
Any future work on resetting binational phosphorus targets for Lake Erie would require extensive negotiations with our Canadian colleagues to revise the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This would have to be followed by in-depth federal-state discussions regarding what would be needed to achieve any newly set targets. Any such negotiations would need to be based on good monitoring data, ecosystem models (such as those developed by EPA’s Office of Research and Development and GLNPO to diagnose the cause or causes of the decreased oxygen), and sound science.
A likely part of any long-term solution to the problem may be to aggressively address and limit the introduction of exotic species into the Great Lakes. If zebra mussels are identified as the root cause of the anoxic conditions in Lake Erie, then we will need actions above and beyond the scope of what EPA can do to address this problem and to prevent future introductions that could cause even more problems in the lakes. I am sure you are all aware of the Asian Big Head Carp that is moving up the Illinois River and could enter the Great Lakes in the very near future. These voracious bottom feeders would further muddy an already complicated ecosystem in Lake Erie and in the rest of the lakes.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate that what is happening in Lake Erie is not something new, but it’s root causes may be. EPA is aware of this problem and we have mobilized the resources and expertise to help us determine what actions are needed to address this troubling situation.
I again thank the Committee for the opportunity to address this important issue for the Great Lakes. I would be happy to take any questions that you may have.
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