Western Basin of Lake Erie dodges algae bullet

So far, it seems, we have dodged another bullet with toxic algae on western Lake Erie this summer, though playing Russian roulette with such a precious supply of fresh water is, well, crazy.

As of the anniversary of that infamous day in American history, Nine-Eleven-Oh-One, the toxic (Microcystis cyanobacteria) algae bloom continues in Erie’s western basin, but it was decreasing in toxicity, lake scientists reported.

Fortunately, “winds caused mixing that reduced surface concentrations previously visible along the Ohio and Michigan coasts,” said a summary report in the NOAA Harmful Algae Bloom Bulletin. “Scum (that green pea soup look) was not present.”

The exception was in Maumee Bay, where the bloom could appear green from a boat. Much, as always in this Brave New World for Lake Erie, turns on the winds, or lack thereof, and on solar heating.

As NOAA noted earlier this summer, the table was set, in terms of phosphorus loadings (agricultural pollution) from the Maumee River, for possibly very heavy toxic blooms.

Which brings us to where the proverbial rubber meets the road: We are nowhere near “there” yet when it comes to fixing this problem.

Thus notes a recent campaign by the Ohio Environmental Council: “Toxic algae is a serious problem in Ohio. In 2015, Lake Erie experienced the largest growth of toxic algae on record, and in 2014, toxic algae left Toledo residents without safe drinking water for nearly three days. Each year toxic algae contaminates Grand Lake St. Marys, Buckeye Lake, and in 2015 a massive growth stretched over 650 miles of the Ohio River.”

OEC noted that many studies have concluded that a major cause of toxic algae is phosphorus pollution from animal manure and crop fertilizers. But it rightly contends that Ohio has not taken strong steps to curb the toxic algae resulting from agricultural pollution, defaulting mostly to “voluntary” countermeasures by the agriculture interests, which comprise Ohio largest and most powerful industry. (Kindly forget the long-gone, red-barn, bib-overall, family-farm image that ag-industrialists continue to market and promote as reality. It is a sham.)

Know that the 6,600-square-mile Maumee watershed is by far the largest on the entire Great Lakes, and it pours its ag-turbid mess right into western Lake Erie, arguably one of the world’s premier fisheries spawning and nursing grounds. Not to mention a drinking-water supply for millions.

In any case, OEC is trying to pressure a change in the game by seeking these solutions for cutting agricultural pollution:

  • Require plans that prevent pollution – “We need farmers and livestock producers to develop and follow individual plans to control pollution.”
  • Stop over-fertilizing crops – “We need reasonable limits on the amount of fertilizer and manure in order to avoid excess applications above what is necessary for optimal crop growth.”
  • Improve compliance and enforcement – “Ohio needs to strengthen its ability to hold violators accountable and institute a system of verification and compliance that ensures plans and rules are being appropriately followed.”
  • Set pollution limits – “Ohio needs measurable limits on the amount of phosphorus, nitrogen, and soil sediments allowed into our rivers and streams in order to effectively protect our water from toxic algae.”

Scientists who have dedicated their careers to this problem have told us that we need to greatly reduce – by at least 40 percent – the amount of free phosphorus (agricultural sources) being leeched and leaked and dumped into the watersheds.

Says OEC: “We are at 1,621 metric tons of phosphorus, but we need to be at 860 metric tons.”

We have a long way to go, and the smart bet is that weak-kneed, voluntary compliance will not get us there. Potential disaster looms, some year soon if not this year. We have been warned.

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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