Algae blooms aren't just a problem in Ohio

It's obviously not just an Ohio problem, or even a Midwest problem.

Toxic blue-green algae turned up last month in Lake Mead on the Arizona and Nevada border. The southbound Colorado River feeds the lake, which is impounded by Hoover Dam to create the largest reservoir in the U.S.

I'm spending a few months in Las Vegas this winter where folks were warned last week to avoid contact with water in upper portions of the 250-square-mile lake. The warning also carries to domestic pets.

The National Park Service noted only minor levels of toxic algae in the lower lake near the Las Vegas intake. But it's still a scary thought since the city gets 90 percent of its drinking water from the lake.

Scattered blue-green algae blooms are not unusual in Lake Mead during late summer when water temperatures often exceed 80 degrees. But, they generally die off in winter.

A "full bloom" in the summer of 2001 blanketed the lake in green. Officials with the NPS and local water authority were quick to say the current situation doesn't rival that rarity.

It also calls into question some things we believe about sources of toxic algae in Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys and other Ohio bodies of water. No-till farming methods and broadcast applications of anhydrous ammonia get most of the blame for that pollution – along with nutrient –rich lawn fertilizers.

But Lake Mead is in the middle of a desert. There's not a row crop within hundreds of square miles and city lawns tend to be rockscapes.

Local authorities seem a bit baffled about the algae's source. But they are sure climate change is contributing to the current blooms.

Shrinking snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains mean less water flowing in the Colorado and dramatically lower water levels in Lake Mead. Those levels reached all-time lows last July and there's been little seasonal recovery in the months since.   

As levels dropped, lake water grew warmer and concentrations of nutrients that feed algae increased. All that, coupled with the recent milder-than-average winter, allowed last fall's blooms to live and thrive, authorities speculate.

While there's no immediate threat, the blooms spur concern for the coming summer and what may lie ahead for anglers, boaters, swimmers – and those who must drink Lake Mead's water.

I am tempted to say Holy Toledo, let's stock up on bottled water now!

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