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Algae Blooms and Us – What Can Be Done About Them

Unless you’ve been living under a pile of algae, you know about the toxin laden algae bloom that made Toledo OH’s water undrinkable earlier this month. An overabundance of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen have been running off into the shallow, warm waters of western Lake Erie this spring and summer. These nutrients come from agriculture fields, residential lawns, and sewage treatment plants. With high levels of nutrients available in warm water, algae and bacteria that produce their own food from sunlight grow at tremendous rates. One of these organisms, called cyanobacteria, bloomed this summer and released a toxin called microsystin beyond World Health Organization recommended levels near Toledo’s water intake. It was this toxin that left nearly half a million people without safe drinking water for a weekend. While it is shocking that this can happen in the US in the 21st century, algae blooms in Lake Erie are not a surprise – they have been growing in size, frequency, and location in Lake Erie for a decade and a half.

Algae blooms are a problem that plagued Lake Erie in the 60’s and 70’s and was largely thought to be eradicated by the 80’s due to environmental policies. But times have changed. Agricultural practices and products in western Ohio have changed to large agri-business models. Ecosystems in Lake Erie have changed thanks to dozen of invasive species brought here in the ballast tanks of ships. And the climate of our region has changed, with more frequent heavy rain events and higher lake water temperatures. Unfortunately, it seems that we, as residents of the Great Lakes and a society as a whole, are the only ones that haven’t changed. We have watched countless threats mount in the Great Lakes – industrial toxins, invasive species, and algae blooms – and we wait until crisis happens to take any action.

Crisis situations have a tendency to grab people’s attention. The Cuyahoga River wasn’t the only river to start on fire, but the iconic image in Time magazine caught the nation’s eye and landmark environmental policies resulted. In a year that has included chemical spill in West Virginia, historic draughts in California, and now toxic algae in Toledo, we have to reconsider what we are doing to the most important source of life – fresh water – and take action.

While our end of Lake Erie is deeper and colder than the western basin, making the immediate threat to our drinking water lower, we have seen with the issue of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae as it is also known, effect other bodies of water like Chautauqua Lake. The changes in agriculture, ecosystems, and climate are going to make many bodies of water vulnerable. The complexity of the problem and its sources will also make for complex solutions. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by stopping a pipe into the lake the way traditional regulatory policies have in the past. It will involve new agriculture policy to monitor practices and limit uses of fertilizers that run into the lake. It can also involve changing the fertilizers used by consumers on their own lawns. It could involve changing how we build our communities and limit the amount of hard surfaces that cause runoff. It could include the way we treat and use waste water. It could involve recreating wetlands that once served the role of filtering and holding of precipitation. It could even include energy and transportation policies that limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are being emitted. Now is the time for our elected officials (based on our urging) to take action on these items – for the sake of our drinking water and the sake of Lake Erie.

And while that list might seem overwhelming, it could also be seen as empowering for the citizens of our region. Every time we choose to not use fertilizers with phosphorus on our lawns, choose to ride a bike or carpool to work, choose to buy food from a sustainable farmer, and choose to talk to our elected officials about these issues, we are doing this for Lake Erie. Even actions like picking up our litter and plastic debris, which have been found as a vector that spreads algae blooms, can help the world’s largest source of freshwater for future generations – and our own.

Image: Credit MERISESA | Processed by NCCOS

 

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  • DEC came out with a report in early spring, that the algae blooms in the Great Lakes Region in the past decade is a direct result of over fertilization of corn crops to meet the demand of the Government mandated 10% ethanol in our gasoline.

  • justannotherone

    “These nutrients come from agriculture fields residential lawns and sewage treatment plants.”
    I would bet dollars to doughnuts that the main problem is actually Big AG and that the latter two, while contributing, are no where near what the big agriculture concerns in the area contribute.   This article needs to be a little more in depth and spell it out.

  • neverchange

    urbanBFLO  Is there any way you can provide a link to this report?

  • Rand503

    Perhaps. But the fact remains that homeowners dump several times more chemicals on their lawns than farmer do, all so that they can achieve that perfect golf course lawn.
    Combine that with the suburban sprawl, which covers almost all of Erie county, and you have an enormous amount of chemicals flowing into our wager supply. There just are not that many farms in the county to say that this is their problem, not ours.
    We need to have more porous roads and parking lots so that runoff is reduce, and water is soaked into the land. Plus. We need to change what we think is a good lawn to realize that we are harming our selves to achieve an artificial look that doesn’t exist is nature.
    BRO would do a great service to show people how suburban lawns are a huge environmental disaster and can and should go the way of the flip hairdo.

  • MJD1001

    Personally, I think while people calling companies to treat their lawn may not be the biggest issue, it is one that really shouldn’t exist.
    All of our neighbors, and I mean ALL of them have their lawn treated. 3 years ago we stopped.  All I do not is 2-3 times I summer I spend 5 minutes picking a few weeds out of the lawn (literally, I pull maybe 20 the entire year) and our lawn looks no worse than any of our neighbors.

  • chewingwax

    Please give a citation to your statement  “And the climate of our region has changed, with more frequent heavy rain events and higher lake water temperatures”.  This handy dandy SCIENCE chart clearly shows absolutely no pattern of warming of Lake Erie temperatures since record keeping began in 1927. http://www.erh.noaa.gov/buf/laketemps/laketemps.php

  • PaulJoseph1

    chewingwax “The Lake Erie water temperature is taken at the Buffalo Water Treatment Plant located on Lake Erie at the entrance to the Niagara River.  The reading is taken at a depth of 30 feet.”
    Taking the water temperature at 30′ is akin to digging a hole in the ground 6′ deep and temperature is 42 year round. This is a poor way to measure any increase in temperature. If anyone has gone swimming at Beaver island, the water is always ice cold at your feet and thats only waist deep in summer. The surface is what should be measured, thats only common sense.
    The heavy downpours are washing more fertilizers into the lake than normal because  ground cannot absorb it , it has to go somewhere and the lake is the lowest point. Now add that to shallow water and hotter days = blooms.

  • chewingwax

    PaulJoseph1
    Thanks for the apologist lecture. I’m sure if the 30 foot measurement showed a pattern of warming you would happily cite it as proof. But alas, it doesn’t, so why not cherry pick the sources that show what you want? That’s bad science.
    In fact, there was just an article in the New York Times about how scientists are going in search of evidence of warming in the deep sea to figure out why their climate models haven’t been working lately.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/science/in-the-ocean-clues-to-change.html?ref=science  Their common sense must have abandoned them. 
    All I asked for is a citation. The author states something as unquestioned fact and cites no source.  That’s sloppy journalism.

  • PaulJoseph1

    chewingwax PaulJoseph1 LOL, save it  for the courtroom. So, you would like a
    documented citation to inform you that cold water sinks and warm water is at
    surface because its faster moving molecules make it more buoyant from the sun’s
    heat. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to research one of the thousands of
    articles on fluid dynamics for you. I’m not a scientist but I would guess that
    if the planet is getting warmer, which it is, the water on it would be as well.
    Nothing in my
    previous statement was “cherry picked” as you so eloquently stated. As
    I said, common sense.
    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/great-lakes-water-temperatures-at-record-levels 

    Believe it or
    not, there individuals in the world that believe that the tens of millions of
    tons of Co2 that man has pumped into the air since the industrial revolution
    began has absolutely nothing to do with the abrupt temperature and weather changes around the world. This is
    exactly what the world’s major natural gas, oil and coal companies want the people
    to think.

  • chewingwax

    Maybe you should read my reply more carefully and try again?

  • natedogg26

    “Since 1995, average surface water temperatures have increased by a few degrees for Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario. Less change has been observed in water temperature in Lake Erie.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, May 2014 – http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/indicators/ecosystems/great-lakes.html

  • chewingwax

    natedogg26 Thanks!

  • justannotherone

    Rand503 
    I thought the article was talking about Toledo Ohio.  And lake Erie in general.  Toledo does have a lot of Big Ag in the area doing chemical agriculture.  There are also a lot of feed lots in the area that produce tons of manure that produces nitrogen rich run off.  I’m not saying that there is some runoff from lawns but the main culprits are Big Agriculture and feed lots.