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Reaping results in Lake Erie phosphorus reduction

Today’s MI Environment story, by Dr. Tim Boring, director, and Michelle Selzer, of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, is from the State of the Great Lakes report.

EGLE staffer conducts algae bloom sampling from Lake Erie shoreline near Stony Point.

EGLE staffer conducts algae bloom sampling from Lake Erie shoreline near Stony Point in 2013.


Protecting and preserving the state’s water quality continues to be a top priority for both the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.

One focal point of this mission is the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB), where sometimes-harmful algal blooms have affected aquatic life and drinking water in recent years. Factors contributing to algal blooms include nutrient-rich water from wastewater treatment plants and farm fields.

While reductions of phosphorus at four of the key wastewater facilities in Michigan’s portion of the WLEB helped Michigan hit its 20% phosphorus loading reduction goal by 2020, they won’t be sufficient to achieve the 40% reduction target Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario agreed to reach by 2025 under the 2015 Western Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement.

Moving forward, it will require new approaches to realize progress from agricultural contributions. MDARD is laser-focused on accelerating conservation in the right places across the WLEB watershed with programs and projects defining success through realistic and achievable water quality outcomes to restore the health of the Lake Erie ecosystem.

While significant progress has been made with point sources (pollution from a single identifiable source or area), it’s time to put our foot on the gas pedal with agricultural nonpoint sources (pollution from many sources at once).

In support of the governor’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, the Fiscal Year 2024 budget includes a total $15 million investment to support soil health, climatesmart agriculture practices, and regenerative agriculture. These priority areas aren’t solely about building stronger agricultural systems and resilient rural economies; they also place a specific focus on improved environmental outcomes.

These investments in soil health to improve water quality are a notable shift in MDARD’s efforts to tackle nutrient losses. Managing agricultural systems to improve waterholding capacity and rainfall infiltration, while enhancing biological cycling to reduce the need for fertilizer inputs, is a paradigm shift in nutrient management for MDARD. Regenerative agriculture principles have been shown to not only reduce nutrient losses but mitigate the impacts of extreme weather – all while prioritizing the agricultural diversity that powers our rural communities.

To better prioritize conservation practice implementation and quantify results, the Domestic Action Plan (DAP) Team, composed of staff from MDARD and the Michigan departments of Natural Resources and Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, is working with Michigan State University to enhance the Great Lakes Watershed Management System to annually quantify phosphorus load reductions from conservation practice implementation relative to the 40% reduction goal. This public-facing online platform will include a dashboard that tracks water quality outcomes associated with social and ecological metrics, providing greater accountability for program implementation in Michigan’s portion of the WLEB.

The DAP Team is committed to community partnerships and advancing the science on water quality mitigation and has partnered with the University of Michigan Water Center to implement a WLEB Advisory Group and Science Panel. The Water Center has convened a multisector group to provide input and advice by assessing progress made over the past five years and offering insight on necessary changes to achieve phosphorous reduction goals. This type of collaboration is fundamental to the long-term success and next steps on the ground in the WLEB.

MDARD is dedicated to achieving demonstrable water quality improvements in Lake Erie. The state’s investments in soil health and regenerative agriculture principles hold the promise to not only improve water quality but enhance the climate resiliency of our agriculture systems, while placing value on how and where our food is grown.

These new budget investments by Gov. Whitmer position Michigan to achieve long-term, tangible outcomes that take us beyond water quality.

As MDARD director, Dr. Tim Boring supports the department’s continued commitment in investing in the state’s rural communities, expanding food and agriculture businesses, protecting consumers from the pump to the plate, and preserving Michigan’s environmental resources. His family’s farm in Stockbridge focuses on climate-smart agriculture practices and soil health for improved environmental outcomes and long-term profitability.

MDARD Senior Environmental Strategist Michelle Selzer helps the department coordinate planning and implementation efforts to restore Michigan’s portion of the Western Lake Erie Basin and its mission to protect, promote, and preserve the food, agricultural, environmental, and economic interests of the people of Michigan. She says her favorite part of her job is working with people who share a passion for protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Great Lakes for future generations.

Take a deeper dive

Learn more about phosphorus reduction efforts in Michigan’s portion of the Lake Erie watershed at