DEQ list of algae-plagued waters doesn't include Saginaw Bay
By Jeff Kart
The Bay City Times
Published February 13, 2008
Does the Saginaw Bay have an algae problem?
"Yes" may seem like the obvious answer, with the mounds of dead algae, or muck, that's been washing up on shorelines with increasing intensity in recent years. Some of the muck has tested positive for traces of human sewage and cattle manure.
How to submit a comment on the state's draft Water Quality and Pollution Control report
State regulators formed a regional effort called the Saginaw Bay Coastal Initiative in 2006 to find ways to deal with muck and other stressors plaguing the bay.
Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency office in Chicago also visited the bay area on Jan. 31, calling the levels of algae here "excessive."
But according to the latest impaired waters list from the state Department of Environmental Quality, the bay doesn't have a problem with algae, or nutrients like phosphorus that state and federal officials have said are helping fuel the growth of algae in the bay, along with invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.
The reason? There's a 1985 nutrient reduction strategy in place for the bay. That plan was last updated in 1991, according to a DEQ official in Bay City.
For that reason, the state isn't proposing to set a TMDL, or Total Maximum Daily Load, for the bay, which would require municipal wastewater treatment plants to remove more phosphorus as part of their normal operations, and possibly impose limitations on spreading animal manure or human biosolids on farm fields.
Alex Sagady, an environmental consultant in East Lansing, has complained for years about the lack of action from the DEQ on listing the bay as impaired for algae and nutrients.
Sagady says the 1991 strategy doesn't appear to be working.
He contends the DEQ is violating the federal Clean Water Act by failing to acknowledge the bay's algae and phosphorus problems.
"This needs to be litigated," he said.
"Someone needs to go to court against the DEQ and say they are impermissibly ignoring water quality impairments on recreation caused by nutrients in Saginaw Bay."
Eric Alexander, who oversees the Saginaw Bay portion of the impaired waters list for the DEQ, is familiar with Sagady's criticisms, and said the consultant has "valid positions."
But Alexander declined to comment on the alleged Clean Water Act violation.
Alexander, chief of the Lakes Erie and Huron unit of the DEQ Surface Water Assessment Section in Lansing, said public comments on the list are being taken until Feb. 25.
Sagady and others who are concerned about the bay need to submit formal comments, Alexander said.
"It would probably be better to let it run its course and let people provide the comments and then we can provide official responses to those concerns," he said.
Alexander said the bay is listed for taste and odor impairments to drinking water, fish contaminant advisories and beach closings.
He said the DEQ is aware of problems with algae and beach muck in the bay, but more study needs to be done on the cause of excessive algal growth in the bay and the breadth of the problem.
"We'd have to list the whole bay as impaired and I don't know if that's fair, because what we're seeing is the near shore effects of this stuff," Alexander said.
"Is that representative of the entire surface of the bay? It's probably not."
Besides the 1985 plan, the listing document says there also are voluntary programs that are helping reduce agricultural runoff into the bay.
Sagady said he believes the entire bay is impaired, along with the Saginaw River and the rest of the 22-county watershed that drains into the bay, spreading pollutants.
Voluntary agricultural programs need to become mandatory, along with stricter phosphorus discharge limits for wastewater plants, he said.
"This is important," Sagady said. "What this is is a strategy for not doing what the law says you must do in this situation.
"It's a strategy for inaction, for taking pressure off of agriculture, municipal, industrial and development interests."
Alexander said the 1985 strategy was based on a target level for phosphorus.
That target level, from the 1970s-era Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, hasn't been met for years, said James Schardt, with the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago.
But the DEQ report says the bay is set to meet phosphorus reduction goals by 2028; Alexander didn't have details on how that's supposed to happen.
According to the latest impaired waters report, total phosphorus concentrations in Saginaw Bay remain relatively constant and continue to be above the target total phosphorus concentration of 0.015 milligrams per liter, or parts per million, established by the 1985 plan.
Alexander said that even though the bay isn't listed as impaired for nutrients or algae, the problem is on the DEQ's radar.
"Our measurement of a problem is subjective," he said.
"Water bodies have weeds and algae in them. It's a judgment call to say if it's impaired or beyond normal. One person's impaired is another person's not impaired."
Dean Maraldo is TMDL program manager for EPA in Chicago. The agency considers Saginaw Bay to be the most polluted spot in the Great Lakes, based on its listing under a separate Area of Concern program.
Maraldo said the DEQ has until April 1 to submit its impaired waters list to his agency.
"If there are comments that really hit to a key issue or concern, we'll follow up on it," he said.
One problem with the listing process is that states base their listings for nutrients like phosphorus on a narrative standard, and each state has different language for establishing when a water body is impaired.
"There is no number that triggers a listing," Maraldo explained.
The EPA has suggested numeric criteria and states including Michigan are working on new standards, he said.