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