With concerns about climate 'extremes' growing1, water is often the focus — either too much or too little. That is no coincidence: climate and the hydrological cycle are tightly coupled, and water is essential to ecosystems and societies. But it is not just the quantity of water that matters. So does its quality.

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n 2011, Lake Erie experienced the largest harmful algal bloom in its recorded history, with a peak intensity over three times greater than any previously observed bloom. Here we show that long-term trends in agricultural practices are consistent with increasing phosphorus loading to the western basin of the lake, and that these trends, coupled with meteorological conditions in spring 2011, produced record-breaking nutrient loads.