Lake Erie algae

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Karen Schaefer is an Ohio freelance journalist and independent radio producer.

Karen Schaefer is an Ohio freelance journalist and independent radio producer.

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By Karen Schaefer

ANCHOR INTRO:  Persistent toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie have been wreaking havoc on Ohio’s multi-Billion dollar lake tourism industry.  Now state agencies are fighting back with new tools to better help them monitor the blooms and reduce the nutrients feeding them from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana farms and cities.  But as independent producer Karen Schaefer reports, the battle isn’t over yet.

SCHAEFER:  Two years ago, a record-breaking toxic algae bloom formed in western Lake Erie and floated east.  It coated harbors and shorelines in the Lake Erie Islands, even drinking water intakes in Cleveland.  Last year’s bloom was nowhere near as bad, but toxic algae is still having a major impact on the Lake Erie tourism economy.  Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, says he’s no longer bringing his boat to Cleveland for the fall fishing season.

UNGER:  In Cleveland, that bloom was so bad, I remember one day taking my customers out to try to find clean water.  And I went 14-miles straight north and never got out of it.  And thick.  Not just, you’d see a little bit.  No.  This was feet thick, slowing the boat down.  I couldn’t fish ‘em, I had to take them back to shore.

SCHAEFER:  Unger says that day alone he lost more than a thousand-dollars, along with six customers who likely won’t be back.  And that story is being repeated across the eight counties of the Ohio Lake Erie shore, where tourism brings in 11.5-Billion dollars a year.  This July, at Ohio State University’s Stone Lab in Put-in-Bay, state agency chiefs laid out new plans and tools they’re using to combat the algae.

Dr. Justin Chaffin, head of Stone Lab's new water quality research program, demonstrates collecting algae samples. Photo: Karen Schaefer

Dr. Justin Chaffin, head of Stone Lab’s new water quality research program, demonstrates collecting algae samples. Photo: Karen Schaefer

SCOTT NALLY:  What are we doing, what’s Ohio EPA been doing – and, oh, by the way, we’ve not been sitting on our hands.

SCHAEFER:  That’s Scott Nally, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.  Nally says his department has been working with sewer districts in Ohio and Michigan, trying to prioritize projects that would reduce the flow of nutrients that feed the algae blooms from city wastewater plants.  He says there’s also a new program that would let farmers, considered non-point source polluters, trade credits for nutrient cutbacks that cities make from point-sources like outfall pipes.

NALLY:  Ohio has rules in place now, so that I can incorporate nutrient trading between non-point and point sources, to be able to give cities credit for that.

SCHAEFER:  Nally has also revived the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force, which three years ago identified Northwest Ohio farms along the Maumee River as the primary source of the phosphorus fertilizers giving birth to recurring algae blooms.  Gail Hesse, head of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission and leader of the task force, says her group has now come up with specific reductions that need to be made.

HESSE:  The recommended target is 150 tons.  And so that overall, a 41-percent reduction from the average is what we’re seeking to achieve.

SCHAEFER:  Hesse says the recent average of phosphorus from farms and other sources is 256-tons.  So there’s still a big gap between what’s coming into the lake and the reductions needed to curb the algae.  Hesse believes that with help from farmers, many of whom were initially resistant to being blamed for the blooms, the algae problem can be solved.

Algae blooms are likely to appear around Labor Day weekend, in time for reenactment of Battle of Lake Erie. Photo: Karen Schaefer

Algae blooms are likely to appear around Labor Day weekend, in time for reenactment of Battle of Lake Erie. Photo: Karen Schaefer

AMBI:  meeting, under:

HESSE:  We have gotten to the point where we’re past the denial and the finger-pointing and really, it’s, we’re all in this together.  Everybody wants to find the right solution as to what will make a difference.

SCHAEFER:  Another potential tool in Ohio’s algae-fighting efforts is Senate Bill 150, a ground-breaking piece of legislation that would, for the first time, give the Ohio Department of Natural Resources the power to cite farmers for polluting the lake.  Legislators are getting feedback on that bill from agricultural communities this summer.  In the meantime, intensive scientific monitoring of the Lake Erie algae blooms continues.

JUSTIN CHAFFIN:  And this is called an integrated tube sampler, going to lower it down to two meters…and here’s our water sample.

SCHAEFER:  At Ohio State’s Stone Lab, Justin Chaffin is demonstrating how he’s sampling Put-in-Bay for signs of toxic algae.  Chaffin is head of the university’s new water quality research lab, which just opened this year.  Along with Heidelberg

Charter boat fisherman Rick Unger says the algae is hurting his business. Photo: Karen Schaefer

Charter boat fisherman Rick Unger says the algae is hurting his business. Photo: Karen Schaefer

University and the University of Toledo, he’ll be testing water samples being taken from across the lake this summer, to see how algae blooms respond to any reductions in nutrients.  It’s this testing that will ultimately determine whether the fight against algae succeeds or fails.  Ohio EPA chief Scott Nally says, as long as he’s in charge, the monitoring will continue.

NALLY:  Unfortunately, I’m locked into budget cycles, so at least for two years.

SCHAEFER:  There’s an additional 600-thousand dollars for lake monitoring in the new state budget.  But there’s also a looming Congressional battle over federal funding for the Great Lakes, some of which goes to pay for Lake Erie monitoring.   And no one can predict how long it will take before Lake Erie’s algae problem is licked.  For Ohio Public Radio/For Great Lakes Echo, I’m Karen Schaefer.

 

Karen Schaefer’s series on [Northeast Ohio/Great Lakes] water quality – Drink, Fish, Swim – is supported by a grant from the Burning River Foundation.

  • Tom M.

    According to this paper when alewives were at thier peak 90% in 1966 (without a die off) they consumed 20% of the zooplankton bio-mass in Lake Michigan per day. So the alewives wipe out the zooplankton in 5 days? Now without any zooplankton to eat even the natural algae, any algae will just rot would it not? This is just alewives no zebra/quagga etc… just alewives. Now add the new planktivores, = algae blooms! I see no logical reason to increase/protect alewives.

  • Bhaskar

    We have simple solution to the problem.

    Grow Diatoms in the Lake and fish will consume them and water will be clean.

    BGA is a problem only because Fish don’t consume them.

  • Phoebe

    I am a member of LEIA Lake Erie Improvement Assn. It is good for dispensing info but I decided to do something on my own. I ordered 1000 buttons that say I (heart) LAKE ERIE. I will circulate them and hope people will care about the lake and get involved. We will see. I think bumper stickers would be a good idea too.

  • Tom M.

    Joe I agree, what good are all these studies if we just ignore them, or just start another study? 40% of Green Bay a dead zone, algae mats on Chicago beaches, how bad does it have to get? You guys may think I’m stuck on alewives, true don’t have no use for alewives, but. Algae blooms occur with alewives sans zebra mussels gobies etc… The main concern of our DNR’s protectors of our natural resources is maintaining a minimum of 123 pounds of alewives per chinook, the minimum to grow to 17 pounds. A more important question is how many pounds of zooplankton does it take to grow an alewife? Too many planktivores create this condition, alewives are a planktivore, restricting predators for alewives increases all the other invasive planktivores. Thus algae/dead zones. So how many pounds of zooplankton does it take to grow an alewife?

  • Bob

    Sandy,
    “We who want blue water have no report card on the excess nutrient loads creating the green and no way of knowing of where things stand.”

    That is not true. There are several data sources that you can utilize to see nutrient loading in Lake Erie. The Lake Erie Committee of the GLFC reports on the phosphorous loading annually, in the annual reports of the forage task group.
    http://www.glfc.org/lakecom/lec/FTG.htm

    Also the NOAA GLERL reports weekly on the presence of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie in their HAB Bulletins.
    http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/Centers/HABS/lake_erie_hab/lake_erie_hab.html

  • Tom M.

    If I may. Please find (Overfishing linked to algae blooms)also (Invasive species threatening area lakes) and last but not least. ( Inconsistencies of the current outbreak of wildlife mortalities with previous episodes of type E. botulism in the great lakes) It key to this problem is the lack of zooplankton, now blamed on zebra mussels and gobies. However algae blooms started in the 50′s, well before we even heard of zeebs and gobies, but ties in with the alewives, major zooplankton eaters, many examples. Add new planktivores spiny fleas gobies, etc… zooplankton dont stnd much of a chance. They say zebra/quaggas are stealing the algae from the zooplankton, starving alewives. However we seem to have excess algae, thus “blooms” increasing the alewives in Lake Michigan is just adding to the problem. Yes controlling phosphorus is important but without a healthy zooplankton population, there is nothing in the water to mitigate the impact, whether natural occurring algae, or “extra”.

  • Sandy

    I am watching the green water rolling on the shore. This is supposed to be 1/5 of what it was in 2011 but it looks the same and has the same visual impact.
    When we let our dog out we have to make sure there is no contact with the water and we will not swim or canoe/kayak in the slime. Boating in the green water is no treat either. Catching a fish and bringing it out of green water even though the fish test ok is not good. The reality is that restaurants, hotels, charterboats and many others are losing business. The jobs and dollars drop when the water is green as does the desirability to buy water front property.
    We who want blue water have no report card on the excess nutrient loads creating the green and no way of knowing of where things stand.
    It is good that the farmers are aware and want to help. But if the situation were reversed the farmers would not accept the pace of doing something to reverse the algae problem and getting the reductions needed.
    In the 1970′s/1980′s we took phosphorus out of laundry detergent to help. A similar help is available now – ban fertilizer and manure from placement on frozen ground. This is the quickest help and the water/fish really need it. We did not have massive meat producing barnds decades ago and the manure that they produce – we did not have massive equipment decades ago that makes it easier to put fertillizer on frozen ground – where does all the phosphorous in manure and fertilizer on frozen ground – in the water and Lake Erie. Scientist tell us that late winter and early spring are when we get the greatest amounts of phosphorus to Lake Erie – please help our Great Lake and all who are dependent on it …from drinking water to fishing to boating etc…. We need action now…

  • Joe

    Here we go with more studies. People, it’s a stalled conveyor that has caused this. The N.Y.P.A. ice boom has cancelled the spring time scrub. Get used to it or fight. Google “Joe Barrett/ice boom” for the details. THX. JBB