Algae pose a severe problem in many waterbodies nationwide, but the algae crisis is perhaps most acute in Lake Erie. Harmful algal blooms choke the lake every year, causing economic and ecologic damage and threatening public health. Solving the algae crisis in Lake Erie depends on reducing the amount of nutrients entering the lake, especially from agricultural stormwater runoff. Ohio’s recent designation of Lake Erie as “impaired” under the Federal Clean Water Act is a positive step, and the resulting Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) should be a useful planning tool in the fight against algae. But because the Clean Water Act and TMDLs do not actually regulate nonpoint sources, it is up to state law to address agricultural runoff.

This article urges another designation for Lake Erie—as a “distressed watershed” under Ohio’s unique distressed watershed rules. A distressed watershed designation would unleash a suite of binding restrictions specifically aimed at reducing nutrient loading from agricultural nonpoint sources, without the need for any new statute or rulemaking. This article also argues that other states plagued by algae and agricultural nutrient pollution should consider using Ohio’s innovative distressed watershed rules as a model for their own rules. Finally, this article recommends improvements to the distressed watershed rules in Ohio and such other states.



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