Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Area experts: region better prepared for algae crisis

Toledo, Ohio — It was August of 2014 when an algae toxin in the water on Lake Erie left 400,000 people in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan without water for several days.

A year later, some progress has been made, but there are still miles to go, experts on the subject say.

“This summer, so far, Toledo, Port Clinton, and especially the Lake Erie islands are dealing with a large algal bloom that harbors the same kind of toxins that hit Toledo last year,” said Collin O’Mara, chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation. “ … That’s just bad news.”

On July 9, algae experts predicted that this year’s bloom on Lake Erie would be an 8.7 on a scale of 10.

“That would put us in line to either be the second or third worst bloom on record,” said Christopher Winslow, interim director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island.

There is some good news, however.

“We have put in some early warning systems and they seem to be working,” Winslow said.

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and city officials announced July 27 that the intake mechanisms that draw Toledo’s drinking water from Lake Erie detected a toxin that can cause liver and kidney damage.

The mayor says the city’s drinking water remains safe but she has updated the status of the water to a “Watch” category. The next stage, “Caution,” means a toxin has been detected in tap water but the level isn’t great enough to require an advisory.

“This is a very different bloom than the one we saw in 2014,” Winslow said. “Because that bloom really hung out in Maumee Bay … It went from a low bloom to a high bloom in a very quick fashion. We’re not having any of those northeast winds.”

The 2015 bloom, Winslow said, is fairly diffuse, meaning it is not as dense as the one experienced in 2014 or a larger one in 2011.

“We’re not seeing it in a concentrated point right now,” he said. “ … This could all change if we get some calm weather and the winds die down …. What this looks like in the coming months is really going to be driven by the weather.”

Earlier this summer, Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario entered into an agreement to reduce Lake Erie phosphorus loads by 40 percent in the next 20 years. Phosphorus inputs are a leading cause in the formation of harmful algae blooms, scientists say.

That agreement is significant, said Craig Butler, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

“None of us own the lake and none of us are going to solve the problem individually,” said Butler. “The 40 percent number is relevant because it’s the best science we have.”

Some question whether Lake Erie should be designated a “distressed watershed.” Butler, however, thinks that would be counterintuitive to the ultimate goal of reducing algae blooms.

“People think that is the golden key in that we declare it in distress and everything will be fine,” he said. “It’s my view that we should not declare the watershed in distress because it actually ties our hands and limits us on practices that we can put into place.”

U.S. Rep. David Joyce, a Republican representing Ohio’s 14th Congressional district, has been instrumental in getting funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and is a champion of the environment in northeast Ohio. Lake Erie, he said, is too important to ignore.

“When you talk about something as big and as plentiful as (Lake Erie), we have only one chance to do it right,” the Congressman said. “We can’t afford to make any mistakes.

“It took a couple of days of Toledo being without a potable water supply to realize just how important this is,” Joyce said.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat whose ninth Congressional district runs along the Lake Erie shoreline, said progress has been made since the water crisis, but more needs to be done.

“We need to get to the science of this large watershed that is the Great Lakes in order to manage these nutrients and the land in a way that does not impact the lake,” she said. “That’s where we’re falling short.”

Creating new wetlands along the Lake Erie shoreline has proven effective in removing some toxins from the water, Kaptur said, and it’s likely that more of these need to be constructed. She acknowledges, however, that this would be a Herculean task, costing millions of dollars.

“The only way we can deal with our watershed and our part of the Great Lakes is to be truthful about what is happening in every tributary,” Kaptur said. “We need measurements of nutrients in those streams and rivers. Right now, we’re doing that a little bit, but not at the level that is needed.”

Area leaders today are better prepared than they were a year ago to deal with the potential for another water crisis, said Don Scavia, a professor at the University of Michigan and leading researcher on algae blooms.

“The monitoring, the models that are in place, the warning systems, are making the water supplies safer and that’s a very good thing,” Scavia said. “ … But, we shouldn’t put ourselves in a position of crossing our fingers and hoping for the weather to solve this problem. We need to prevent the blooms from occurring in the first place.”

Farm runoff is a major source of this phosphorus pollution, but it isn’t the only concern. Yet, 80 percent of the farmers in the northwest Ohio watershed recognize their role in phosphorus loading into the lake, said Winslow, the Ohio Sea Grant director.

“If they recognize they are responsible for at least part of the problem, I would hope they also want to be part of the solution,” he said. “ … This is not just a Great Lakes problem. It’s a countrywide, global issue.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in May it is fine for people school-age and older to drink tap water containing up to 1.6 parts per billion of microcystin. The World Health Organization follows stricter guidelines, as does Ohio. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city of Toledo to declare the crisis last summer once the toxin level in tap water went above 1.0 ppb.

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