Can unsightly algae spark environmental action?

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An unseasonably mild winter and heavy spring downpours have made western Lake Erie’s algae outlook especially grim for a third consecutive summer.

Not surprisingly, the International Joint Commission said this month it wants federal officials in the United States and Canada to work harder on a bi-national strategy to curb the region’s massive nutrient runoff from farms, lawns, livestock operations, golf courses and sewage spills that have allowed Lake Erie’s algae problem to spiral out of control.

Commission co-chair Lana Pollack of Michigan aptly described the Lake Erie situation as a “crisis,” although the term has been used so often to describe the lake’s erratic water quality in recent years that it has almost more of a mind-numbing effect than its intended shock value.

You see, Lake Erie’s most prevalent form of toxic algae, microcystis, has bloomed out on the open lake almost annually since 1995. That’s 17 years.

But those previous 15 pale in comparison to the past two. The outbreaks in 2010 and 2011 were both record-setters. Last year’s bloom penetrated well beyond Cleveland and fanned out across much of the lake’s cooler central basin for the first time in ages, possibly ever.

In parts of Lake Erie last summer, the concentration of the toxin that makes microcystis deadly was found to be 1,200 times greater than limits for drinking water recommended by the World Health Organization. It was 600 times greater than what the United Nations agency considers the threshold for safe recreation, according to Ohio Sea Grant Director Jeff Reutter.

The Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources are, for the first time, installing info-graphic signs about algae at state-run facilities along Lake Erie. The signs will remain in place through November.

The state of Ohio has tested Lake Erie beaches for excessive bacteria for years. But it wasn’t until 2010 that it began regular tests for excessive algae near shorelines where swimmers and sunbathers gather.

Microcystis has been around in Lake Erie’s water column for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Under ideal conditions, it’s not visible to the human eye and is a minor player in the lake’s biology. But when phosphorus, one of the most common farm fertilizers and a component of human and animal waste, gets into the lake in such abundance, microcystis becomes algae on steroids.

The lake gets out of whack. That’s nature. Make food abundant and things grow like mad.

So the mere presence of microcystis or any other algae isn’t unusual; just the sheer volume. Major blooms that turned Lake Erie into a pea-green hue in the 1960s were considered a thing of the past after the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, the same year America’s landmark Clean Water Act was adopted. Both ushered in the modern era of sewage treatment, which greatly brought down phosphorus levels.

Back then, the strategy was more clear: Improve the sewage-treatment and the algae would go away, as it did for almost 25 years. That was long enough for Lake Erie to be hailed as one of North America’s greatest environmental comeback stories of last century.

But phosphorus in Lake Erie’s two largest tributaries, the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, has been quietly on the rise since about the time microcystis became more prevalent in 1995.

There are several possible explanations — more intensive farming, concentrated livestock, fewer wetlands, more paved areas, billions of dollars of sewage work left to do, even how zebra mussels and other invasive species digest nutrients. But nobody has identified a smoking gun.

That’s disconcerting. It’s hard enough to treat problems across large geographical areas; it’s nearly impossible when the sources aren’t pinpointed.

Though microcystis is not known to have killed anyone in the Great Lakes region, it has the same toxin that killed 75 people at a Brazilian kidney dialysis center in the 1990s, prompting a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation.

This issue, which begins in the tributaries, hugs the Great Lakes shorelines, and now canvasses large swaths of open water throughout the region, made a short list of top priorities for the two countries to focus on through at least 2015 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The United States and Canada are in the process of overhauling that agreement to make it more in sync with modern times.

Few issues have united Great Lakes Democrats and Republicans, at least in rhetoric, like Lake Erie’s algae.

Why? Because Lake Erie, with its warmth and shallowness, has been proven time and again to be a biological indicator — a sentinel, if you will – of things to come elsewhere in the Great Lakes region.

There is now a greater understanding that there’s more at stake than love of nature and altruism.

Ohio went from 800 charter boat captains to 700 in one year. Most of those 100 who gave up or declined to renew their licenses are believed to have done so because of algae. That’s hundreds of jobs and thousands of dollars in spinoff revenue for hotels, restaurants and bait shops. But you can’t hardly blame ’em: Their business was killed by the stinkin’ algae – not just by the repugnant odor and sight of it, but also the higher fuel costs for the additional miles needed to find blue water.

Algae’s a public health threat and budget-crusher, costing shoreline communities such as Toledo thousands of more dollars a day in water-treatment costs. It drives down waterfront property values.

Perhaps the best reason for hope, in an oddly endearing way, is the embarrassment factor.

At a recent University of Toledo College of Law workshop, two speakers compared western Lake Erie’s algae problem to Cleveland’s 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, one of several fires on the Cleveland waterfront which caused that city to be called the “mistake on the lake” for years.

Cleveland sacrificed a lot in public relations, but the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire became a rallying cry. It not only galvanized the Great Lakes region, but — along with the infamous oil spill that year off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. – contributed to the movement which led to America’s first Earth Day in 1970.

If Lake Erie’s going to enjoy another remarkable comeback, the region will need to galvanize over the algae issue as much as it did over the Cuyahoga River fire.

Governors and congressmen have seen the need.

Major businesses such as Cedar Point, one of the region’s largest employers, have stepped up and expressed their outrage over algae.

Fears are mounting that recreation and tourism, one sector of the Great Lakes economy with a potential for growth, could take a bigger hit. More than $10 billion of Ohio’s $38 billion annual tourism revenue is generated in counties along the Lake Erie shoreline. Many visitors come from Michigan, one of the top states for registered boaters.

So now the issue has come full-circle back to the IJC, which had made phosphorus-reduction a central theme of the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The IJC is a State Department-level agency that has helped the United States and Canada resolve boundary water issues since 1909, especially those which affect the Great Lakes.

It seems like a natural place to galvanize a region.

10 thoughts on “Can unsightly algae spark environmental action?

  1. Pingback: $10 million in funding for Great Lakes phosphorus reduction programs | Great Lakes Echo

  2. I don’t believe it’s merely a coincidence the phosphorus increase occurred at virtually the same time Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations began applying liquid manure at high rates to tiled fields in Northwest Ohio and SE Michigan. Although manure runoff is suspected as one of the major sources of the phosphorus that feeds the algae blooms, Ohio has failed to set numeric nutrient pollution standards that adequately regulate CAFOs. With no enforceable standards, CAFOs are permitted to land apply massive amounts of untreated waste directly onto tiled farm fields, some of which are already saturated with nutrients. It’s time for U.S. EPA to step in and establish numeric nutrient standards for phosphorus since Ohio has failed for years to do so.

  3. Said it before, I’ll say it again. Stalled Conveyor. The ice boom has stopped the all essential conveyor of nutrients from Lake Erie. granted this year the Lake did not freeze but that just makes ice flow more important when it does freeze. The Lake needs to start from zero or as near as it can get each year. When it starts with a bunch of last years left over biomass, dead or alive bad things are bound to happen. There is one other big factor at play which compunds this but no, it’s not nutrient loading. Much simpler. I will explain that when I have the IJC’s attention. They did not listen to me when N.Y.P.A. was relicensed and I gave them “Ice Boom Theory”. Anyhow when you get sick and tired of the green monster give me a call. Read more at Thanks Joe Barrett @

  4. Tom, I agree with you wholeheartedly, but, then have we had a similar situation before in exactly the same body of water? The powers that be didn’t learn then and likely will be reluctant to solve the current rendition given the shortage of funds. Maybe they could dip into the Social Security Trust Fund again, or cut Medicare reimbursements again. However, maybe the rich who have been siphoning off a greater share of our nation’s wealth in the past 30 years will pay for a clean up. After all we, thru our Congress, have been very generous with tax breaks, subsidies and bailouts.

  5. Thanks, Tom, for your unrelenting focus on this tragedy. I should add that the full story of phosphorus in Lake Erie would be incomplete without mentioning the decades-long history of intermittent mismanagement of sewage sludge entering the Detroit River from the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant. Let’s hope that new management at the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (and some federal corruption convictions) will bring an end to this disgraceful period.

  6. Great article. We should learn from the last time Lake Erie recovered. There was an extensive monitoring system from 1972 through 1985 when funding ended because Lake Erie waters were healthy again.
    The monitoring before was a consortium of states. water intakes, health departments, and Ontario conducted monthly with assistance in cooridnation from the IJC.
    We need a Great Lakes Algae/Nutrient Leader – like the Asian Carp efforts to help to pull all the data and info together.
    Lake Erie could, perhaps, get somehelp from in water treatment to remove phosphorous – probably in the Maumee. We need an organization like Batelle to see if this might be viable.
    At the end of the day, if those economically impacted by Lake Erie care enough, they need to come together to be the waters advocate. Lake Erie Improvement Association brings this together.

  7. Tom – great piece, thank you. No silver bullet but the good news is there are loads – pardon the pun – of data showing where nutrients are coming from. We need aggressive phosphorus targets that cross state and national boundaries then to back them up with the right reductions THROUGHOUT the watersheds from city to farm. Other GL states like Wisconsin are starting to take this approach too.

  8. This is an excellent commentary by Mr. Henry. We at Flow for Water think it is likely a combination of issues and abuses to the Great Lakes causing this problem. Phosphorous runoff, sewage over flows, storm water runoff, invasive species, warmer waters and excessive rain last summer (climate change?) Mix it all together and “presto” a green Lake Erie.
    We do hope people listen to the warning Lake Erie is giving us. The people, the communities, and businesses along Lake Erie’s coast should not have the burden to solve this issue alone. We as citizens of the Great Lakes are all in this together, and we all live downstream.

  9. I doubt it. The T–Partiers won’t spend money on this problem, when you will be able to walk from Monroe to Cleveland on Lake Erie.

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