Toledo, Ohio — Lake Erie will see one of the most severe toxic algae outbreaks in recent years this summer, a year after toxins contaminated the drinking water for 400,000 people in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan, researchers predict.
Scientists who issued their forecast for the lake think this year’s algae bloom could be second only to one in 2011, when the algae stretched more than 100 miles from Toledo to Cleveland.
Heavy rains across northern Ohio over the past month have washed huge amounts of algae-feeding phosphorus into the lake.
Two weeks ago, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Heidelberg University, the U.S. EPA, the Lake Erie Commission, and OSU/Stone Lab presented the third annual press briefing on the summer’s predicted harmful algae bloom levels.
With the recent heavy June and early July rainfall, NOAA’s Richard Stumpf shared that the latest models predict that the 2015 harmful algae (Cyanobacteria) bloom will be severe at a nearly record high of 8.7 to 9.5.
Last year, researchers developed a 1-10 scale with the record 2011 bloom at 10 and the drought-impacted bloom of 2012 at 3. Anything over a level 4 is significant and creates issues, Stumpf said. Last year, it was at 6.5 and caused the water crisis in Toledo.
In 2013, heavy rainfall in early July surpassed the predicted size of the bloom, forcing NOAA and the others to reconsider the June 30 nutrient input cut-off date used for their HAB prediction model. That September, Carroll Township became the first community with finished water that tested too high for the algal toxin microcystin.
Last year, with a moderate HAB of 6.5, but unfavorable wind conditions, Toledo suffered through a water crisis in early August, with their municipal water testing unsafe for drinking, cooking, or bathing. Monroe, Mich., and Pelee Island, Ontario, also had drinking water advisories last year.
There has been a lot of progress in addressing the HABs with legislation and fertilizer applicator training requirements, but it is unlikely we will see results for several years. Not only do the nutrient inputs need to be reduced, but also consumed from the sediments.
Acting Sea Grant Director Chris Winslow illustrated some of the Ohio programs underway to address HABs, including $2 million from the Ohio Department of Higher Education (formerly Ohio Board of Regents), to address five “Focus Areas” which are:
• Lake Erie HAB and water quality;
• improve the tools, technology, and training to remove toxins at water treatment plants;
• promote best management practices such as fertilizer use and cover crops;
• assess human health hazards of harmful algae such as toxicity in fish tissue; and
• evaluate economic feasibility with new public policy.
Jay Martin, of Ohio State University, covered the Field to Faucet projects begun in March, 2015, which includes field management, manure recycling, shared data collection, in-water microcystin detector buoys, and algae spotting from aircraft.
Timka Hyde from the U.S. EPA reviewed some of the objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which will try to minimize the hypoxic (low dissolved oxygen) zones, maintain healthy algal species consistent with a healthy aquatic ecosystem, and keep HABs to levels that do not pose a threat to human or ecosystem health.
According to Laura Johnson, of Heidelberg University, there was optimism throughout the months of March-May that low rainfall levels would keep nutrient inputs low. Then the fourth wettest June on record produced 7.2 inches of rain in Toledo, leading to the third highest June discharge since records began to be kept in 1930. This resulted in the largest June total phosphorus inputs since 1981 and the largest June dissolved reactive phosphorus since 1975.
A 40 percent reduction in dissolved reactive phosphorus brings its annual loading to 186 metric tons, to about 2008 levels. So far, there has been 396 metric tons detected so far by Heidelberg University monitors – 200 tons above 2015 target levels.
Stumpf reminded the crowd that most of Lake Erie would be fine much of the time. It is mainly a Western Basin and a little bit of Central Basin’s issue, and favorable winds could push the bloom offshore.
To monitor the blooms, see NOAA’s website at www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/waterQuality/ or Ohio EPA’s HAB Advisory Map at epa.ohio.gov/HABAlgae.aspx p://.
The prediction for an algae bloom bigger than a year ago doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more drinking-water trouble because wind and water temperatures play roles, too.
“While we are forecasting a severe bloom, much of the lake will be fine most of the time,’’ said Richard Stumpf, of NOAA.
Algae blooms – linked to phosphorus from farm fertilizers, livestock manure, and sewage treatment plants – have taken hold in the western third of the lake over the last decade and colored some of its waters a shade of green that looks like pea soup.
Over the past two summers, toxins in the lake fouled the water supply in Toledo and in a neighboring township. Toledo’s drinking water was off-limits for just over two days last August.
The algae blooms, which typically peak from the middle of August through the end of September, also have been blamed for contributing to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can’t survive.
What happens this year when the large blooms develop will depend a great deal on wind patterns and temperatures – the cooler the better for slowing down the algae.
In past summers, strong winds have pushed the blooms up against the Ohio shoreline while at other times it has sent the algae toward the middle of the lake. A year ago, the wind shoved the algae over the intake pipes where Toledo draws its water.
“There’s no way now to know where it will be concentrated,” Stumpf said.
Ohio, along with Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario, agreed in June to sharply reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into western Lake Erie within the next 10 years.
Some changes limiting when farmers can spread fertilizer and manure on fields already have been made, but it will take at least a few years to see improvements.
Only a significant reduction in phosphorus will solve the problem, said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist.
“We cannot continue to cross our fingers and hope that seasonal fluctuations in weather will keep us safe,” he said.
About half the phosphorus in the lake comes down the Maumee River, which drains 3 million acres of farmland before flowing through Toledo and into the lake.
So far this year, about 2.5 million pounds of phosphorus has washed down the river – the highest since 2011, said Laura Johnson, a research scientist at the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University.
Nearly half of this year’s total in June came after storms dumped eight inches of rain across northwestern Ohio and parts of Indiana that also drain into the lake.
Researchers who have been out on the lake already have seen the toxic algae in the water, which is a little earlier than usual, said Tom Bridgeman, of the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center.
But the toxins have not been detected in the water Toledo uses, city officials said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.