Harmful green algal blooms still plague Lake Erie

Kelly J. Kaczala

        In June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted Lake Erie would see a smaller algal bloom than the previous year.
        Lake Erie blooms consisting of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are capable of producing microcystin, a known liver toxin that poses a risk to human and wildlife health. The bloom in the lake currently extends from Maumee Bay north to Pointe Mouillee, Michigan, and east from Maumee Bay to Marblehead, and just to Kelly’s Island, according to the NOAA.
         Toxins have been detected above the recreational limit. They can be highly concentrated in scums. If scums are observed, people and pets should not go in the water, according to the NOAA.
        The size of a bloom isn’t necessarily an indication of how toxic it is. For example, the toxins in a large bloom may not be as concentrated as in a smaller bloom, according to the NOAA. Each algal bloom is unique in terms of size, toxicity and ultimately its impact on local communities.
Always here
        “Whether it’s big or small or in-between, the problem is, every year there is harmful algae,” said Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper. “We have not had a year since the early 2000s in which we did not have it. So it’s always here.”
        The prognoses attempt to determine the quantity of algal blooms. “But in 2014, when the Toledo water crisis happened, that was a low bloom year. So to think that because the bloom is low, it’s going to be OK, is not accurate. It doesn’t work that way,” said Bihn.
        “When the algae is in the lake, probably the biggest factor of what happens with it is the way the wind blows. That is what happened in Toledo in August, 2014. For three days, we had a wind that was the right direction that literally collected a lot of the algae in the far western basin, and the wind died and the algae went down all the way to the water column, and it caused the water crisis,” said Bihn.
        “As in every year, there’s harmful algae out there,” said Bihn. “And some of it has the cyanobacteria and microcystin. That’s just the way it is. So until we are able to reduce it significantly – they say 40 percent-to a point where there’s less of it overall all the time, we’re faced with this threat.”
        Heavy spring rains cause runoff of phosphorus contained in fertilizer that is spread on farm fields. The Maumee River runs through considerable farmland as it wends through eastern Indiana and western Ohio, before entering Lake Erie, feeding the algae that can develop into harmful algal blooms.
Reducing phosphorus
        Instead of the annual forecast, added Bihn, “I wish they would simply say, ‘Here’s so much money we’re spending, here’s where it’s most effectively working, here’s where we’re reducing the sources of it.”’
        Once phosphorous is on the ground, it’s in the system, she said.
        “The best you can do is to keep it out of the system to start with,” she said.
        Reducing the amount of phosphorus entering the lake will basically solve the problem of the harmful algal blooms, she added.
        It was done once before with great results. Laundry detergent at one time contained phosphorus, which was causing the same algal conditions in Lake Erie in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, said Bihn. When the manufacturers of the detergent removed the phosphorus, the lake started to clear up.
        “They simply took out the phosphorus, which was hugely beneficial to the algae issue,” said Bihn.
        In addition, the Clean Water Act was passed, which required permits for industrial discharge into a river, stream or lake. It had to meet certain standards. Industry stopped putting heavy metals, chemicals and toxins into the rivers and lakes. Much of the benefit to our waters is huge because we’re no longer using rivers and lakes as a dumping ground,” she said.
        Also, there was a reduction of phosphorus discharged from wastewater plants. “They were able to economically reduce it enough to bring the waters back and keep the discharges down.
        “So they reduced sources, and it worked. The lake was wonderful for 20 years.”
        Hundreds of millions of dollars have been thrown at the algal bloom problem in the lake since the Toledo water crisis. But still there are blue-green algal blooms in the lake.
        “Wouldn’t you just target the funds to reduce phosphorus in areas that would be the most beneficial to the water? We don’t do that. Ever,” she said.
        Although farmers increasingly are helping the cause by following best management practices to reduce the phosphorus entering the lake, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) farms, consisting of large livestock farms with more than 1,000 head of cattle that produce manure, is increasing in number in the Lake Erie watershed.
         “You’re not reducing the amount of waste being produced by the animals that is spread on the farms. It is adding to the phosphorus emptying into the lake,” she said.
        “In the 90s, they started consolidating the animals with a large volume of manure - that’s the big change that has happened that the system doesn’t seem to want to address,” she said.
        According to an investigation by the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the non-profit Environmental Working Group, over half of the manure in the Maumee River watershed comes from an exploding number of unregulated factory farms. The amount of phosphorus added to the watershed from manure increased by 67 percent between 2005 and 2018. The investigation also estimated that manure adds over 10,000 tons of phosphorus to farm fields every year. Meanwhile, phosphorus added in chemical fertilizers actually declined.
        “Until we really look at source reduction, we’re never going to solve the problem,” said Bihn. “The reality is that harmful algal blooms are here. And it is a problem that needs to be fixed.”


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