Smaller Toxic Algae Blooms Predicted for Lake Erie in 2020

Environmentalists say leaders in the area need a concrete plan of action, not just recommendations to lower phosphorus runoff levels.

NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this view of an algae bloom in the west end of Lake Erie in August 2014.

(CN) — Harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie will be smaller than last year, according to an annual forecast, but they are still larger than they should be.

Fertilizer and manure runoff from farms cause the algae blooms, which can be harmful to fish, animals and people, according to Great Lakes Now.

The amount of phosphorus that can affect algae in Lake Erie is projected to be 325 metric tons this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday. The agency predicts the algae blooms will measure 4.5 on the severity index, compared to 7.3 last year.

The phosphorus estimate is down from last year, but still higher than the U.S. and Canada’s Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement objective of 240 metric tons.

Laura Johnson of Heidelberg University, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research, briefed the media Thursday morning during a live web event on daily phosphorus testing in the Maumee River and approximately two dozen other sites near the lake.  

“Since the early 2000s, we have had some very rainy years that have led to an upward trend in streamflow discharge. Phosphorus levels are following the same trend, so load is very driven by flow,” she said. 

Johnson added that while no downward trend in phosphorus has been detected since 2002, “we have learned a lot that will help with management.”

Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer with the NOAA, then delivered the forecast of the lower phosphorus output for 2020.

“Much of the lake will be fine most of the time, but there will be high concentrations of scums during calm days,” he said.

Stumpf advised lake visitors to keep children, pets and themselves away from scum areas, where there are large buildups of algae.

Johnson said the way farmers apply fertilizer can affect phosphorus levels, but it may take time for their efforts to have an effect.

Stumpf said there was not a “No. 1 culprit” that causes harmful algae blooms.

“I wish there was a silver bullet, but it’s not that easy,” he said.

The forecast was prefaced by comments by U.S. Representatives Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., Bob Latta, R-Ohio, and Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.

“Harmful algae blooms are a significant threat to human health, and we can’t afford to let them go unchecked,” Dingell said.

Latta called Lake Erie “the crown jewel of our region,” and said its water quality has a large economic impact on tourism, hunting and fishing.

Kaptur said the smaller bloom forecast for 2020 was “good news for our health, but the fact remains that our lake remains at risk.”

Sandra Kosek-Sills, an environmental specialist with the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, said the state’s H2Ohio Program is working with farmers to improve nutrients to their crops and protect the water supply.

“However, it will take time for these efforts to show results,” she said.

According to Kosek-Sills, ways to reduce phosphorus levels include soil testing, subsurface nutrient application, drainage water management and edge-of-field buffers.

In response to the forecast, the Alliance for the Great Lakes said the governors of Ohio and Michigan and the premier of Ontario need more concrete plans, rather than just identifying best practices.

“In 2015, [they] set a public goal of reducing nutrient pollution by 40% by 2025, with 2020 as a halfway interim goal of 20%. Today’s results show very plainly that little progress is being made, and we are very far off from achieving this goal,” the group said in a joint press release with Freshwater Future and the Ohio and Michigan Environmental Councils. 

Crystal M.C. Davis, director of policy and strategic engagement for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said officials “need to provide an accounting of progress and a plan of action.”

“When the algal blooms in western Lake Erie can be seen from space, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that this is becoming a crisis,” Davis said in a statement. “Efforts are not only falling short, we also don’t have a clear accounting of how or where we are in reaching the 20% reduction goal, or how we will get to the 40% reduction goal.”

Captain Paul Pacholski, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, said limits must be set for the amount of phosphorus that can go into the waterway.

“Find the sources of the nutrients and target those areas with the H2Ohio dollars,” he said. “A shotgun approach to the whole area is not cost-effective as we must identify the source of the problem and take actions to remediate the source.”

Jennifer Read of the University of Michigan Water Center said one idea is to “focus reduction efforts on areas that we suspect, through modeling, are releasing more nutrients than other areas.”

“This kind of activity, however, requires a real policy shift in the way the federal government supports agricultural land management best practices — from the current voluntary approach where those first through the door who want to participate receive funding, whether their farm is a large source of excessive nutrients or not, to a situation where we are proactively seeking those farmers whose fields are most likely losing more nutrients than others and making them active participants in this solution,” Read added.

Professor Brent Sohngen of Ohio State University said that to reduce algae blooms, phosphorous concentrations need to be lowered “by reducing agricultural inputs – not just once in a while, but every year because we can’t control when it rains.”  

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