PRESQUE ISLE, Pa. – Lake Erie’s toxic green menace has returned for another summer encore.
This time, it’s not just Ohio’s shoreline that’s in trouble. Besides exploding on Toledo-area shores in the Maumee Bay area of the western basin, pockets of toxic blue-green algae are also brewing in southern Ontario and showing up for the first time this year 90 miles from Buffalo in scenic Presque Isle Bay off Erie, Pa.
Lake Erie’s easternmost shores in Western New York have been spared so far, but toxic algae has been reported in at least three local inland water bodies here – including Chautauqua Lake – prompting warnings from local health departments and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
What’s more, decomposing algae, toxic or not, annually robs oxygen from Lake Erie, creating a vast “dead zone” where almost no life can survive. This year is no exception. Scientists are still plotting precise locations for the hypoxia but said the continued nutrient buildup in the lake’s waters from agriculture, stormwater runoff and urban wastewater overflows is making matters worse.
The toxic blue-green algae is actually a form of cyanobacteria that can damage the nervous system of humans and animals. It is not at an all-time high level this year like the 1,738-square-mile pea soup-like blanket that poisoned waters from Toledo to Cleveland two years ago, but it’s worse than 2012 and is large enough to cause trouble, scientists say.
When combined with a brand-new set of problems, the news in 2013 isn’t encouraging. “It will rank up there with one of the bad years,” said Steve Ruberg, a leader with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
Toxic algal blooms – usually a late summer event – appeared even earlier this year. It blossomed in different places, causing a new set of problems:
• Beaches started closing in July in Chatham-Kent, Ont., after tests revealed hazardous cyanobacterial blooms in the water.
• In Pennsylvania, officials are grappling with on-again, off-again discoveries of isolated toxic blooms along the shoreline of Presque Isle State Park – a narrow 3,200-acre sandy peninsula jutting off the shore at Erie that annually attracts millions of visitors.
• Nearly 2,000 people in Carroll Township, Ohio – located on the lake shore between Toledo and Sandusky – were given bottled water for a few days last week after the municipal water supply was overwhelmed with microcystin, a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, at levels 3.5 times higher than what’s deemed safe for drinking by the World Health Organization.
“It’s not a good sign,” said Raj Bejankiwar, a scientist for the Great Lakes regional office of the International Joint Commission.
Lake Erie’s toxic stew headlined the agenda at last week’s three-day Great Lakes Summit in Milwaukee, said Bejankiwar – one of six members of a panel discussion about how to get a handle on the problem before it gets worse.
“It is really concerning. We are seeing it in places we didn’t see it before,” Bejankiwar said. “Obviously, we are seeing something going on in the lake.”
A 600-square-foot scum of toxic blue-green algae coated Presque Isle bay’s surface last week before weekend storms and cooler weather broke it up. The slick, and its “bright green paint-like” signature, had disappeared from the water. For now.
That’s been the way the newly discovered blooms here have been acting since scientists made the initial discovery in July.
“They’re very flighty right now,” said Nate Irwin, a Great Lakes biologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s still present. The last couple of months, we’ve been dealing with flare-ups – small blooms.”
Algae is created with the same recipe: nutrient-rich, warm, sunny, shallow environments where there’s not much movement to the water.
Scientists continue to struggle for answers as to what conditions trigger algal blooms to “turn toxic” and produce such high concentrations of cyanobacteria.
They’re also trying to get a handle on why the toxins like those at Presque Isle are occurring now in other parts of the lake, far away from western Ohio.
“This is so fresh to us,” said Richard P. Stumpf, a Maryland-based oceanographer and national algal bloom forecaster for NOAA. “As much as I’d like to be able to answer, I’d be speculating. We don’t know. It’s a question we need to look into.”
Poor water quality in the bay may have been responsible for the initial increase in algal growth that eventually led to the toxin’s development, posits Irwin. Likewise, he suggested, a massive gizzard shad die-off this spring could also have played a role in providing nutrients for the algae.
“The lake is very eutrophic right now,” Irwin said. “Algae are having the time of their life right now. Blue-green algae are no exception to that.”
That’s why a task force of local and state officials is keeping an eye on the water, testing it and dealing with harmful algal blooms as they arise, according to Ron Lybrook, a manager with Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. When toxic blooms are present, the task force posts portable signs along bike trails, boat launches and areas where pets and humans congregate, warning the public of the danger. No illnesses have been attributed to humans or pets so far this year.
Tom and Joy Booser, lifelong visitors to Presque Isle, like many in the park last week, hadn’t heard about the new toxin in town. The Waterford, Pa., couple shared a drink and some rest at a picnic table just yards from the shore where a toxic bloom had previously been sighted. They weren’t alarmed.
“Nowadays, they test for everything,” said Joy Booser, striking a prosaic tone. “It’s just being aware of it. Are you going to drink the water? No.”
Revisiting the Dead Zone
Lake Erie’s “dead zone” is also back this summer. “At this point, we don’t know the extent of it,” Ruberg said, “but we know it’s there.”
This area, scientists call it the “hypoxic zone,” is the place where so much oxygen has been sucked out of the water that little life – except for anaerobic bacteria – can survive.
It’s created mainly in the unmixed, stratified “warm on top, cool on bottom” waters of the central basin, between roughly Huron, Ohio, and Erie, Pa.
Toxic and nontoxic algal blooms alike, fueled in the western basin by high nutrient levels in the water, flow to the central basin where they die, then decompose. The process robs the cooler bottom water of oxygen, creating these lifeless zones in the lake, according to scientists.
Later in the fall, those stratified layers are again mixed as the water cools down and the weather changes, helping to reoxygenate the water before the cycle resumes again the subsequent summer.
Although the size of the dead zone varies by year, it’s become a recurring annual problem that, exacerbated by the vast Maumee Bay algal blooms, has only gotten worse.
Throw in the unpredicability of climate change – warmer days, heavier rains and wetter spring seasons – and it’s a recipe for future disaster on Lake Erie unless the load of nutrients feeding the algae gets reduced, and fast, said Bejankiwar.
“Lake Erie has too many stressors,” Bejankiwar said. “This is a really big challenge for many people.”
It’s the chief reason why the IJC, as part of its recently released Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority draft report, unveiled ambitious recommendations last week at the Great Lakes Summit and is hosting a series of public meetings on both sides of the border over the next few weeks to generate ideas about how to reduce the amount of dissolved phosphorous in the lake, and with it the accompanying algae.
Four decades ago, phosphorous was substantially reduced from the lake’s waters by eliminating it from detergents, Bejankiwar said.
“Within 10 years, Lake Erie went from a dead lake to one of the most productive,” Bejankiwar said. “It was one of the greatest ecosystem recoveries in the world.”
A similar endeavor has to be undertaken now to cut phosphorous loads that are finding their way into the lake from farms, storm runoff and sewage overflows.
It’s why the IJC is calling on governments in both the United States and Canada to reduce phosphorous going into Lake Erie by about 40 percent.
Much of that goal can be realized, scientists said, by enacting outright bans on farmers applying fertilizer and manure to frozen fields during the winter months to cut down on spring runoff as well as banning the fertilization of lawns in urban areas. Upgrading infrastructure to reduce combined sewage overflows into the lake is also among the recommendations.
Why it matters
Neither the dead zone nor cyanobacteria has gripped our often oxygen-rich waters on the eastern end of Lake Erie.
But don’t count your lake sturgeons before they hatch.
“It’s coming,” predicted Sandy Bihn, executive director of the Toledo-based Lake Erie Waterkeeper.
She thinks the toxic slime eventually will beset the lakeshore of the Empire State.
“There’s not any doubt about ‘if,’ but ‘when,’ ” Bihn said. “Once you get it, it will be harder to get rid of.”
The volume and depth of lake water here is a double-edged sword, she said. It might be more oxygenated, but the water turns over only every 2.6 years. Nutrients caught in our water, Bihn said, could stick around longer. The much-shallower western basin, meanwhile, where the problem algae first showed up a decade ago, “flushes itself” every 30-50 days.
It’s an easier disease for the lake to catch in the shallow waters near Toledo. But because of the quicker turnover in the western basin’s water, she said it could also prove quicker to cure.
It’s also why, Bihn said, residents from Erie to Buffalo shouldn’t dismiss it as an “other side of the lake” problem.
“We’re all interdependent on each other, which is important for you in Buffalo to understand,” Bihn said. “The lake flows from west to east.”