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Runaway algae returns to Lake Erie

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Runaway algae blooms that killed fish and fouled beaches in the 1970's have been making a comeback on Lake Erie – and they're showing up now in other Great Lakes.  Until recently, they didn't get much attention, but the problems have been getting worse.  After years of research, scientists think they've finally pinpointed the source of the blooms.  But they worry it won't be as easy to fix this time around.

There's no sign yet of algae in the muddy water here at the mouth of the Maumee River in Toledo on western Lake Erie.  But it's late spring and Tom Bridgeman knows it's coming, “It's getting worse, the last couple years have been really bad.”

Bridgeman is a researcher at the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center. He's been watching the algae come back every year since he first saw the satellite image of a massive algae bloom in 2003. “It started near the mouth of the Maumee River, so several hundred square kilometers was covered by this bloom,”  says Bridgeman, “It looked like a scum of bright green paint on the surface of the water.  And as boats went through could see them cutting trails through this sort of green scum on the surface.”

The scum is Microcystis, a toxic form of blue-green algae that can give you cramps and diarrhea if you swallow it and can also cause a nasty skin rash.  The toxins accumulate in the livers of fish, but Bridgeman says so far fish don't seem to be affected, nor are people who eat them.  But the algae does have an impact on Toledo's drinking water, which comes from Lake Erie. “I've heard that the city of Toledo spends an extra 3 or 4-thousand dollars per day in extra filtration costs during an algal bloom,” says Bridgeman.

Bridgeman says it's wreaking havoc with sport fishing and tourism on the lake.  And more people are staying away.  Bridgeman says the algae smells even worse than it looks, “Especially when it washes up on shore and starts to dry out and decompose, it really has sort of a fishy, you know, garbage-y sort of odor.”

Bridgeman's research is crucial to helping predict the blooms and their severity.   Many forms of algae are a natural and necessary nutrient for fish, but they can get out of control when their food source is ramped up by human activity. 

In the last few years toxic algae has also been showing up along beaches in Lake Ontario.  And in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, thick blankets of non-toxic, nuisance algae often coat the shoreline.  Scientist and educator Jeff Reutter is head of Ohio Sea Grant.  He's spent his entire career working on Lake Erie issues.  Standing near Cleveland's Lake Erie harbor, Reutter remembers when algae as thick as pea soup bloomed in the lake in the 1970's., “The breakwall here, a little bit east of where we're standing, someone had painted on the breakwall, 'Help me, I'm dying' and signed it 'Lake Erie.'”

Reutter says in fresh water, phosphorus is the nutrient that algae needs to grow.  Too much causes rampant blooms. Reutter says cutbacks of phosphorus from laundry detergents and sewage treatment plants nearly a generation ago seemed to solve the problem.  Reutter believes the return of algae blooms is a sign that Lake Erie is once again sick, “The big concern I have is that I feel like I started with Lake Erie really bad.  Huge improvements brought about by the mid-1980's.  And unfortunately, since 1995, it's been going downhill ever since.”

Reutter says the mid-90's was when dead zones - much like those in the Gulf Mexico - started showing up again in Lake Erie.  Dead zones form when decaying algae blooms use up oxygen in the water, forcing fish and other wildife to migrate – or die.  So scientists like Pete Richards, a researcher at the National Water Quality Research Center at Ohio's Heidelberg University, have been working to solve the phosphorus mystery.  Richards thinks he's found the answer. “When 80-percent of the land use in a watershed is agriculture, it's almost inevitable that a major source of the phosphorus loading is going to be from the agricultural fields,” says Richards.

Richards worked on the investigating team with the Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force, which last year released new recommendations about how and when farmers should fertilize their fields “In some senses, the fixes are obvious.  You don't do it in the fall, you get it underground, rather than on the surface.  But for every obvious fix, there's a good reason why it doesn't get done,” says Richards. He says he task force recommends fertilizing in the spring, when plants will use it up.

At a farm about 50-miles south of Lake Erie, dairy farmer Ted Sonnenberg says it isn't always possible to follow the recommendations – like this spring when he saw record-breaking rainfall, “There aren't enough good days in the spring.  We have not been able to touch the fields behind the dairy, because they're too wet.”

A recent study by Ohio State University found 30-percent of Ohio's farmland has too much phosphorus.  With federal money from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Sonnenberg  is reducing the phosphorus output of his dairy by building new ponds to store the manure.

Sonnenberg is trying to be more sustainable, but many farmers aren't.  And some researchers admit they're not sure that voluntary compliance from farmers will be enough to reduce the phosphorus that's feeding Lake Erie algae.  There are other things that may help.  Last year, 16-states, including Ohio and six other Great Lakes states, passed bans on phosphorus in dishwasher detergents.  And several manufacturers, like Scotts, have removed phosphorus from their lawncare products.

For now, algae blooms will likely continue to plague Lake Erie and its shoreline.  And that worries Toledo resident Alli Weber whenever she swims here at Maumee Bay State Park, a few miles east of Toledo.  Weber and her 3-year old daughter Lillian enjoy cooling off in Lake Erie, but not when smelly mats of algae wash ashore.

“I don't like it,” says Webber, “ I don't know if it's safe.  Especially when I bring her, because she, like, touches it and I don't like that.”

This summer, Ohio health officials unveiled a new website that tells swimmers and boaters where algae blooms are located and how to avoid getting sick from them. Scientists say if they can figure out solutions, the lakes will recover quickly.  But if the blooms get worse, the impacts on human health and the environment could grow. 


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