Phosphorus still plagues Maumee Bay watershed

Kelly J. Kaczala

        In June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted western Lake Erie would experience a significant harmful algal bloom (HAB) this summer.
        The bloom is expected to measure 7.5 on the severity index, but could range between 6 and 9, according to the NOAA. An index above 5 indicates blooms having greater impact.
        In 2011, a record breaking algal bloom developed in Lake Erie’s western basin. It had a severity index of 10. A larger bloom developed in 2015, at 10.5. Last year’s bloom had a severity index of 3.6, while 2017’s was 8.
        The forecast was based on heavy rains in May and June. Fertilizer is commonly spread on farm fields in the Maumee River watershed. When it rains, phosphorus, a main ingredient of fertilizer, drains from the fields, flows into the ditches, into the river, and empties into the lake. Phosphorus feeds the development of harmful algal blooms. Cyanobacteria,  or blue green algae, is capable of producing the liver toxin microcystin, which poses a risk to people and animals.
        Microcystin was detected at high levels in samples taken from the Collins Park water treatment plant on Aug. 2, 2014, in East Toledo. It prompted the city to issue a three day tap water ban to communities that consume city water.
        The lake temperature had remained relatively cool due to the higher than average rainfall in the region, so the bloom was not expected to start until late July, when the water temperature reached 65 to 70 degrees, according to the NOAA. This contrasts with 2018, when exceptionally warm weather at the beginning of June caused an early start. Calm winds in July, especially in western Lake Erie, tend to allow the algal toxins to concentrate, making blooms more harmful. The bloom typically peaks in the western part of the lake in September.
Bloom present
        On July 20, satellite imagery from the NOAA confirmed the forecast. The development of a harmful algal bloom was detected in the western basin of Lake Erie.
        A Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin issued by the NOAA stated that a microcystin cyanobacteria bloom was present in the western basin. The bloom was present north along the Michigan coast to Brest Bay, northwest of Monroe, Michigan, and offshore from Maumee Bay to West Sister Island. Sampling from July 15 indicated that the toxin concentrations increased, but remained below the recreational threshold. Winds from July 19-July 21 promoted mixing of surface concentrations, though scum was intermittently observed along the Ohio Coast. “Keep pets and yourself out of the water in areas where scum is forming,” warned the bulletin.
        “In 2015, we had the largest algal bloom that we’ve monitored since having satellite imagery in 2002,” said Dr. Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University. The Center has been tracking phosphorus loads into the lake for over 40 years. It collects water samples from several monitoring stations at rivers and streams in the Maumee Bay watershed for analysis three times per day.
         “We had a drought year in 2016, so we had a very mild bloom, which was great. But the only reason for that is because we just didn’t have very much runoff. But we had a pretty big year in 2017,” she said. “In 2019, we’re expecting a pretty big bloom year as well because of the heavy rains in June. With extremes of weather, it can be very difficult to determine if we’ve seen a whole lot of trends or not. Based off the water quality data, I would say we have not improved very much. This year is a weird year because of all the rain we’ve had going all the way back to last fall. We have seen quite a bit less of fertilizer application by farmers on the farm fields. Usually, the applications happen in the fall, and a little bit in the spring with planting. Fall applications were very, very low. And it was pretty low this spring. So we have seen lower than expected of certain types of phosphorus loads coming from the Maumee River this year. But the problem is that it rained so very much, starting in April into June, that we’re still expecting a big bloom. We just had so much water.”
No change
        There has been no change in nutrient runoff and phosphorus loading detected in the Maumee River as it drains into Lake Erie since the water crisis of 2014, according to Johnson.
         A 2017 study by the Ohio EPA issued in 2018 also showed there was no discernible decrease in phosphorus or nutrient loading to Lake Erie, which continued to exceed a 40 percent phosphorus reduction requirement. The study examined phosphorus and other nutrients from agriculture. It also looked at municipal and industrial wastewater systems and home sewage systems, which make up the vast majority of nutrient sources. In the Maumee watershed, 88 percent of the phosphorus contributed to Lake Erie is from nonpoint sources, including agriculture.
        The results of the study showed no clear trend of an overall decrease in loading in most watersheds, especially in nonpoint source - dominated watersheds like the Maumee, where the loading in 2017 was the highest of the years reported, according to the study.
        State legislation passed in 2015 requires the Ohio EPA to conduct a study ever two years.
Failing grade
        Sandy Bihn, director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, said there has been some progress in the last five years, mostly with monitoring of the lake. “Toledo now monitors the water intakes more extensively,” she said.
        There’s also been more research on harmful algal blooms and microcystin since 2014, she added.
        “We’re monitoring, reporting and watching. We have beach warnings. I don’t know of many places that check for both E. Coli, and microcystin to determine if it’s safe to swim. I give a grade of A plus in terms of us getting on top of it and knowing what’s going on.  Oregon, Toledo, and Ottawa County have all upgraded their water treatment systems to protect the drinking water. So we’ve come a long way in terms of protection of drinking water, forecasting and understanding what’s happened to the water.”
        But she gives a failing grade to efforts to reduce the phosphorus in the Maumee River and Lake Erie.
        “We don’t know how to get rid of it. We don’t know which practices necessarily work. We haven’t looked at the sources and figured it out. Over 50 percent of the farms in Northwest Ohio are not being farmed this year. This is really different and unique. If commercial fertilizer is a big driver of the algal blooms in Lake Erie, and farmers have not used much fertilizer because of the heavy rain in the fall and spring, my perception is there should be less algae because we’re not putting as much phosphorus into the ground. So we should see results. But predictions are we’re going to see a large bloom. We’re just now seeing algae in the ditches and the lake,” she said.
        Bihn said the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency should establish a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorus and other nutrient pollution causing the harmful algal blooms.
        The Lucas County Commissioners agree. In April, they filed a lawsuit to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish a TMDL for the western basin of Lake Erie.
        The TMDL program, established under the Clean Water Act, focuses on identifying and restoring polluted rivers, streams, lakes and other bodies of water. TMDLs are prepared for waters identified as impaired.
        The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Toledo, states that the refusal of the Ohio EPA to submit a TMDL to the U.S. EPA violates the requirements of the Clean Water Act and other federal regulations.
        The commissioners asked the court to order the U.S. EPA to create a TMDL or have the agency order the Ohio EPA to develop and submit a TMDL to federal environmental officials.
        “Lake Erie is a leading economic driver for the entire Great Lakes region,” commissioners stated in a news release. “Tens of thousands of people rely on the lake for clean, safe drinking water, their livelihood, and recreational opportunities. We are asking the court to order the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to comply with its obligations to establish a TMDL for phosphorus and other nutrient pollution causing impairment to Lake Erie or order the Ohio EPA to create one and oversee its implementation.”
        James Lee, media relations manager with the Ohio EPA, declined to comment because “the Ohio EPA is not a party to this lawsuit.”
        In 2018, when the Ohio EPA designated the western basin of Lake Erie as impaired, Heidi Griesmer, a spokesperson for the Ohio EPA, said the agency did not intend to do a TMDL because “we have a domestic action plan in place.”
        “Normally, you have to do a water quality study and go through the TMDL process. In this case, we have already developed a domestic action plan that basically does the same thing. If we were to do a TMDL, we would be retracing our steps and wasting our time,” said Griesmer.
        There is a TMDL in place in all the sub watersheds in the western basin of Lake Erie, she added.


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