Taking the fight to Lake Erie algal blooms before they reach Western New York - The Buffalo News
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Taking the fight to Lake Erie algal blooms before they reach Western New York

Toxic blue-green algae again threaten the Ohio side of Lake Erie and its shorelines this summer.

In Buffalo, government officials and environmentalists on Monday took aim at stopping the cyanobacteria before it reaches Western New York. They called for a two-pronged federal approach involving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Lake Erie is one of Western New York’s greatest resources for tourism, recreation and for healthy drinking water,” U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer said at the Erie Basin Marina. “But toxic algae blooms threaten to greatly undercut the value of this resource.”

The senator called on the EPA to regulate cyanotoxins and provide help and guidance to local water treatment plants in testing and filtering the toxin from drinking water. It’s something both Canada and the European union have already done.

Schumer also urged the Department of Agriculture to designate the Great Lakes as a “critical conservation area,” a new designation in the 2014 Farm Bill. That would provide farms federal funding and assistance to help them prevent runoff from their farms, which scientists cite as the top contributor of phosphorous – and, with it, algal blooms – to Lake Erie.

“If we do these two things we can get a handle on this problem before it becomes a nightmare,” Schumer said.

So far, the toxic algal blooms have been primarily confined to the western one-third of the lake in Ohio and southern Ontario. Left unchecked though, officials said, it could wind up on Buffalo’s shores.

“We’ve had a wet spring, so it means we could see a higher toxic algae problem again this year,” said Joe Atkinson, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering at the University at Buffalo.

Toxic algae threatens the health of animals and humans, drinking water supplies, recreation and sport fishing on Lake Erie.

The algal blooms – cyanobacteria that harm the skin, liver and nervous system in humans – have inundated the lake throughout western Ohio and southern Ontario in recent years. Although there’s been no known human death involved on Lake Erie, pets and other wildlife have succumbed to exposure or ingestion of the toxic brew here. In other parts of the world, humans have died.

Cyanobacteria-contaminated waters aren’t new. And they’re not unique to Lake Erie. Many inland lakes and ponds – including Chautauqua Lake and others across New York State – have fallen prey to the poisonous algal blooms.

Environmentalists call protecting Lake Erie important because it provides drinking water for millions of people on both sides of the border.

For the first time last summer, the percolating bright pea-green looking blooms overtook a water treatment plant in Carroll Township, Ohio. They also sprung up as far east as Presque Isle Bay in Erie, Pa. – just 90 miles from Buffalo.

The toxins produced by the algae “have the potential to contaminate local drinking water because local water treatment plants do not have direction about how to test for the presence of cyanotoxins or how to filter them out,” Schumer said.

It’s why Schumer says strict standards should be in place to assure water is safe when it’s drawn from the lake, and that it can be effectively treated before it’s pumped into people’s homes.

Cyanotoxins were first listed on the EPA’s list of potential contaminants in 2011, Schumer said. But they have not been added to the “official contaminant list,” nor has the EPA provided “the direction that local water treatment plants need to effectively prevent cyanotoxins from entering drinking water,” he said.

“We don’t want what’s happening in Ohio and Michigan to happen in New York State,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said it “took many years” to get Lake Erie cleaned up from decades of 20th century pollution. It would be “tragic” to the region’s economic recovery if the days of “a dead lake” returned, he said.

“If we don’t take this action now, it might not be too much longer before we see blue-green algae here in Western New York,” Poloncarz said.

The proliferation of algae also gives rise to another problem in the lake: dead zones.

Decaying algae sucks oxygen from the water and creates large swaths of the lake where little marine life can survive.

It’s still too early to gauge how bad the algal blooms could be this summer.

After a historically large algal bloom in 2011 that stretched hundreds of miles from Monroe, Mich., to Cleveland, a dry 2012 mitigated the problem, but it returned again last year, in new spots with new problems.

One of the key predictors of how widespread summertime blooms might be is spring precipitation – especially in the 4-million-acre, heavily agricultural Maumee Bay watershed that straddles portions of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

More rain and melting snow means more phosphorous that finds its way into Lake Erie.

Besides runoff from farms, overflows from combined sewage systems, as in Detroit, as well as lawn fertilizer and other sources contribute to the spike in phosphorous concentrations in the lake, and eventually to the explosion of algae.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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