Harmful Algal Bloom in Western Basin of Lake Erie: September 20, 2017. Photo by Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick.

Federal court approves Lake Erie settlement agreement for TMDL

By Peggy Kirk Hall, director of agricultural law, Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program

What is the key to resolving disagreements over water quality issues in Lake Erie? Cooperation, according to the federal court judge overseeing a legal battle over Lake Erie. The judge, U.S. District Judge James G. Carr, recently approved a plan that is the result of cooperation between the U.S. EPA, State of Ohio, Lucas County Commissioners, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center. For almost six years, the parties have been in a legal battle over how to deal with water quality in Western Lake Erie. But at the encouragement of the court, the parties developed and agreed to a Consent Decree to settle the case. Judge Carr approved the Consent Decree on May 4, 2023. Time will soon tell if the cooperation approach will satisfy the parties holding interests in Lake Erie’s water quality.

What led to the Consent Decree?

In the midst of growing concerns about harmful algal blooms and water quality in Western Lake Erie, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Lucas County Commissioners filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA, claiming that the federal agency had failed its obligations to oversee Ohio’s duties to meet water quality standards under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA requires states to identify waters that do not meet water quality standards and designate them as “impaired waters.” Once it lists a water as impaired, the state must also rank which waters have the highest need for determining Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) that set maximum amounts of pollutants that may enter the water. TMDLs provide a framework for future decisions that affect water quality in the impaired water.

Following a separate lawsuit that challenged Ohio EPA’s designation of some but not all waters in Western Lake Erie as impaired, Ohio EPA assigned impaired water status to all Western Lake Erie waters by 2018. But Ohio identified the waters as a “low” TMDL priority and stated that it would address water quality the western basin through “alternative measures” rather than preparation of a TMDL. The U.S. EPA, charged with reviewing state actions for compliance with the CWA, approved Ohio’s designation. The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Lucas County Board of Commissioners each filed lawsuits against the U.S. EPA for approving Ohio’s approach, and the two lawsuits were consolidated into the current case. The State of Ohio, not an original party to the litigation, received the court’s permission to intervene as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Several years and many motions and hearings later, Judge Carr admonished both sides of the lawsuit for dragging the matter out in court and leaving Lake Erie’s water quality problem “largely unattended.” In 2021, before considering separate summary judgment motions the parties had made, the Judge pointed out that no matter his decision, the other party would appeal it and continue the litigation and that “nothing is going to get done.” 

Resolving the problems in Lake Erie would only happen if the U.S. EPA, the plaintiffs, and the State of Ohio would “work cooperatively towards accomplishing a meaningful outcome and resolution,” Judge Carr stated. His resolution on the summary judgment motions would only “kick the can down the road for another two years, at least…” A better solution, said Judge Carr, would be for the parties to resolve the matter through settlement.

With the court’s oversight, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations for nearly two years. They reached an agreement in 2022. As required by law, the U.S. EPA filed the proposed agreement, or Consent Decree, in the Federal Register last November and sought public comments to the proposal. The parties then filed a joint motion to the court, asking Judge Carr to approve the proposed Consent Decree. 

The Consent Decree

The Consent Decree outlines a timeline Ohio EPA must follow to create a TMDL designed to address nutrient and algae impairments for drinking water, aquatic life, and recreational uses by establishing pollutant limits for all Western Lake Erie waters. The agreement requires the plaintiffs to allow additional time for the U.S. EPA to step in and prepare a TMDL if Ohio fails in its efforts to do so. The Consent Decree also sets up a status report schedule and a dispute resolution process and awards attorney fees and costs to the Plaintiffs. The agreement does not address the legal sufficiency of the TMDL, and the plaintiffs still hold the right to challenge the legal sufficiency or adequacy of the TMDL. The Consent Decree will end upon performance of all obligations by all parties.

The following summarizes the steps of the agreed upon TMDL schedule.

Approval of the Consent Decree

Judge Carr’s role in reviewing the proposed agreement was to determine if it is “fair, adequate, and reasonable, as well as consistent with the public interest.” The parties’ submitted a joint motion in support of the Consent Decree that laid out their arguments as follows:

  1. The proposed agreement is fair because it was negotiated at length, in good faith, and in recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of each side.
  2. Because the proposed agreement addresses Defendant’s alleged violations by providing a schedule for developing a TMDL for Western Lake Erie, it is adequate and reasonable.
  3. The Consent Decree is in the public interest and furthers the goals of the Clean Water Act by providing for the timely development of a TMDL that will help “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” as intended by the Act. It also allows continued citizen rights to participate in the TMDL, does not alter existing regulations for TMDLs, and avoids significant time and expenses associated with ongoing litigation.

Judge Carr agreed with the parties’ arguments and approved the Consent Decree. In doing so, he praised the work of U.S. District Judge Polster, who oversaw the settlement negotiations, the lawyers for each party, and the State of Ohio. “Though the work that today’s agreement brings is but a first step, it is a step that has to be taken. How many more steps lie ahead, and how long they will take, is beyond even guessing,” he stated. “But there’s reason to hope that, in time, the Maumee River will no longer display, as it has for countless summers, a loathsome foul and slimy green surface as it flows through Toledo on its constant and irresistible course on to Lake Erie’s Western Basin.”

What’s next?

Implementation of the Consent Decree schedule is already underway. The Ohio EPA issued a draft TMDL or “Nutrient Water Quality Improvement Plan for the Maumee River Watershed” on Dec. 30, 2022, and is currently reviewing comments made during the public comment period that ended on March 8, 2023. The agency appears to be on schedule for meeting the June 30 deadline for submitting the TMDL to the U.S. EPA for its review. Information on the Draft TMDL is available at https://epa.ohio.gov/divisions-and-offices/surface-water/reports-data/maumee-river-watershed.

But is continued cooperation on the TMDL for Western Lake Erie possible? Both the plaintiffs in this case submitted comments on the draft TMDL, and both raised concerns about its “shortcomings.” 

“The TMDL just proposes to keep doing the same things that have already failed, focused on voluntary measures and incentive payments to producers,” stated the Environmental Law & Policy Center in its comments, available at https://elpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/ELPC-Maumee-TMDL-comments-FINAL.pdf

“It is critical that the draft TMDL not lack the necessary steps to reduce agriculture phosphorous runoff into Lake Erie and place limits on dissolved reactive phosphorous,” said Lucas County Commissioner Wozniak in comments summarized at https://co.lucas.oh.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1750. “We shouldn’t be fooled into settling for half measures and voluntary practices any longer. We are talking about the health of our most valuable resource, and we must have a meaningful TMDL to protect it.”

While the spirit of cooperation encouraged by Judge James G. Carr is at play in the development of a TMDL for Western Lake Erie, whether that spirit will thrive in the debate over the content and future implementation of the TMDL is a critical question. In the words of Judge Carr, how many more steps lie ahead, and how long they will take, is beyond even guessing. Let’s hope that more litigation isn’t one of those steps.

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