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Forecasters predict mild algae bloom in Lake Erie this summer

The levels of algae will not be as high as past cycles but scientists warn heavy rainfalls caused by climate change could lead to water contamination issues down the road.

(CN) — The forecast for harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie shows lower levels than last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but the levels are still higher than desired.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, opened a presentation by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science by thanking the team for their diligence and acknowledging the risks people will endure in the future.  

“Clean, safe water is essential for the vital role the Great Lakes play in supporting tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, agriculture and manufacturing.” she said.

Dingell made a point to lament Thursday's Supreme Court decision that the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions should be left to Congress, not the Environmental Protection Agency.  

“I guess I shouldn’t be stunned, but how worried I am about what the Supreme Court did today. I believe that clean air and clear water are basic human rights,” she declared.

Laura Johnson, a director at Heidelberg University;s National Center for Water Quality Research, spoke about the amount of monitoring going on for Lake Erie and how researchers pull daily samples of water—sometimes up to three in a day—when the water levels are higher.

Johnson said the levels of harmful algae blooms, or HABs, were lower than the last two years and “definitely” lower than the last 20 years, but the levels were still above their targets.

“TBP [total bioavailable phosphorus] is exactly where we expect it to be,” she concluded, adding that the levels are “always driven by [water] flow.”

Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer for NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, talked about how wind direction can play such a meaningful role in predicting the TBP levels and touted the progress they have made in tracking the patterns that has not come easy.

Stumpf said based on their information, he is expecting an average amount of rain for June when statistics are completed as well as a typical July level of rainfall. However, he did note that more heavy rainfall events are occurring.

“This is very likely a climate impact,” he said. “When you have heavier rainfall the soil cannot absorb it as well so more of it runs off.”

Stumpf said that the lake registers a 3.5 severity on NOAA’s algae bloom severity index, which he noted was lower than last year but still concerning. An index above 5 indicates a severe algae bloom.

“It would be better if we were at 2, 2.5,” he said. “We sent it one way, we can send it back.”

Overall, Stumpf was optimistic about the forecast.

“Much of the lake will be fine most of the time,” he said.

Santina Wortman, a scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said that the agency spends about $10 million a year on monitoring and forecasting algae blooms as well as groundwork but more effort was needed.

“We are leveraging the states…they have the authority to implement through their regulatory programs various permitting authorities, they have conservation programs at the state and local level,” she said.

She added, “We know that we need more than just the government to fix this problem [but we are] glad to see it going in the right direction.”

Western Lake Erie was expected to experience a smaller than average harmful algae bloom this summer, when the first 2022 Lake Erie HAB early season projection was issued by in May. The projection was produced by NOAA with support from the National Center for Water Quality Research.

The forecast was compiled with TBP measurements that were collected by Heidelberg University and used to predict the levels of river discharge and phosphorus loads. The severity of the HAB depends on input of TBP from the Maumee River during the loading season that runs from the beginning of March to the end of July.

The projected TBP loads are based on river forecasts from the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center and previous years to the end of July.

According to the projection, March and April rains and associated discharge and phosphorus loads for the Maumee River were lower than previous averages. Test models indicated a bloom severity of less than 6, with a severe bloom not as probable if precipitation continued to be below average.

Last year, scientists predicted the toxic algae should be on the smaller side again but measurements at the conclusion of 2021 ended up measuring a 6, or moderately severe, on NOAA’s harmful algal bloom severity index.

The bloom was slow to develop over last summer but ramped up and reached a peak in late August through early September, primarily in U.S. waters.

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