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Spread of Lake Erie’s toxic algae poses challenge to governments

Part of an occasional series

By T.J. Pignataro

News Staff Reporter

PORT STANLEY, Ont. – Lake Erie was always greener on the other side – until this year.

The lake’s infamous toxic blue-green algae first made what’s become an annual summertime appearance along the southern Ontario shoreline in July this year.

It arrived on the lake a month earlier in a new spot, closing beaches in the Chatham-Kent area during some of the summer’s hottest days – and it raised a whole new set of alarm bells.

A month later, when a small pocket of blue-green algae – actually a neurotoxic form of cyanobacteria – emerged in Presque Isle Bay off Erie, Pa., those alarms resounded even louder.

Worse, no one knows where this hazardous green goo will percolate next.

When state DEC officials received a boater’s report of a possible sighting of blue-green algae this summer near Westfield’s Barcelona Harbor, they scrambled crews to collect a sample.

It tested negative, but that doesn’t mean officials here are resting easy.

“We’re very concerned,” said James Tierney, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s assistant commissioner for water. “We’ve been monitoring what’s going on.”

It is also why the International Joint Commission – an advisory body of United States and Canadian officials charged with remedying water quality concerns along the border – issued a recent report calling for the public to get involved and governments to take decisive, immediate action to stem this green tide from exploding on a lake that’s ripe for conquer.

“If the problem continues, at stake is a multibillion-dollar cost to one of our most precious resources,” said Raj Bejankiwar, an IJC Great Lakes scientist, following a recent IJC open house in Ontario. “How many people rely on drinking water systems on this lake? How many rely on the tourism industry? The beaches?”

The Maumee Bay area of western Ohio, IJC authorities said, should be a cautionary tale for everyone living along Lake Erie and relying on its water.

Besides regular beach closings and bright green lake water, the health hazards associated with the toxic algae became magnified earlier this month with the first-of-its-kind shuttering of an Ohio water treatment plant that became overwhelmed with toxins.

“If you think about it, it is scary,” added Bejankiwar. “The problem is very serious.”

Empire State toxins

Western New York’s shores have tested negative for cyanobacteria thus far, but many inland lakes haven’t been as fortunate.

New information shows New York leads a nationwide list for reports of toxic blue-green algae, according to last week’s report by the National Wildlife Federation. Of 147 reports nationwide, 50 have been in the Empire State, including some in Western New York.

Locally, Chautauqua Lake, the Allegheny Reservoir and Lime Lake have appeared regularly this summer on the DEC’s weekly roster as those with “confirmed” blue-green algae.

Recent DEC lab samples found the Allegheny Reservoir had a “large localized” bloom, Chautauqua Lake had a similar bloom “confirmed with high toxins” as well as confirmed blue-green algae in open water, and Lime Lake had a “small localized” bloom.

“We had a complaint that a person dumped a bucket of paint in the lake,” said Mark Stow, Chautauqua County’s director of environmental health. “It turned out to be blue-green algae.”

Stow said the algae typically migrates from one area to another depending on wind direction, and “piles up in certain spots.”

“It certainly has gotten worse the last couple of years,” Stow added.

The wildlife federation suggested that New York’s numbers, which are laboratory-confirmed toxic blooms, could be bolstered by the state’s “strong monitoring system” not seen in some other states. In contrast, the next highest, Kansas, reported 18 blooms. Ohio reported 10.

“We really have a patchwork, piecemeal-type approach to monitoring this,” said Jordan Lubetkin, a federation spokesman who advocates standardized toxic algae monitoring. “We need to be tackling this issue on a nationwide scale.”

Tierney and Scott Kishbaugh, the chief of the DEC’s Lakes Monitoring and Assessment Section, explained that monitoring is only one aspect of the issue. Acting to reduce phosphorous loads in waterways also is paramount given the scientific evidence that shows algal blooms can be spawned by very low concentrations – 20 parts per billion – of the chemical.

For comparison, that’s like 20 cents out of $10 million.

“We’re not looking to hide this problem,” said Tierney. “We’re looking to expose it and address it.”

Some scientists believe the first cyanobacteria bloom somewhere between Ripley and Buffalo could be inevitable despite the state’s best efforts.

“It might just be a matter of time,” said Michael Murray, a staff scientist for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office who helped prepare the IJC’s recently released Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) draft report that targets harmful algal blooms.

Ecosystem problems

IJC officials say toxic algal blooms, with climate change stirred into the mix, are only going to worsen if the problem isn’t dealt with now.

Ringed by major urban centers from Detroit to Buffalo which contribute phosphorous through overflows from combined sewage systems, Lake Erie’s surrounding land use is heavily agricultural, especially in the roughly 4-million-acre Maumee River watershed. About 80 percent of the land there is agricultural, and scientists say it contributes the vast amount of run-off phosphorous on the lake’s western end.

Melting snow and spring rains – exacerbated by the changing climate – carry fertilizer from farms into tributaries, and then into Lake Erie.

The nutrient-laden water in the shallow western basin heats up in the summertime sunshine, making it prime for algal growth – both toxic and nontoxic. That algae flows into the central basin and dies, with its decomposition robbing oxygen from the water and creating vast “dead zones” across the belly of the lake.

This sea of green has occurred for more than a decade, but after a historic nearly 2,000-square-mile dead zone blitzed the lake two years ago, killing fish and leaving the shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland under a toxic pea-colored blanket, calls for change began echoing loudly.

The massive 2011 blooms led the IJC to develop its draft LEEP report, which remains open for public comment through Saturday.

“Common farming practices and old sewer systems and climate are contributing to Lake Erie’s current problems,” said Lana Pollack, the IJC’s American chair. “Our advice to governments pulls no punches because the science indicates that without major changes, especially in farming practices, we won’t see any substantial improvement in Lake Erie’s health.”

The LEEP draft offers governments a blueprint for reducing phosphorous loads in the lake – and with them – harmful algal blooms.

The IJC’s recommendations include:

• Banning applications of manure or other biosolid waste on frozen or snow-covered ground;

• Prohibiting the use of phosphorous fertilizer for lawn care;

• Reducing phosphorous runoff during the wet spring season; and

• Strengthening government regulations on farmers in the U.S. and Canada.

The commission concludes that agricultural practices and their predominance in the Maumee Bay watershed play chief roles in delivering dissolved phosphorous to the lake, fueling the algal blooms. An exceptionally snowless and dry 2012 brought little farm run-off and algal growth was tamped down.

Then, following a wet spring this year, it surged again in both old and new places.

“It’s like Mother Nature was doing the experiment for us,” Bejankiwar told about three dozen people gathered last week at an open house in Port Stanley. There, several speakers – including farmers – debated agriculture’s “best management practices” with IJC scientists.

Designed to generate input from farmers, business owners, municipal leaders and ordinary citizens, information obtained by the IJC from seven such open houses will be assimilated into a final draft likely to be released in early 2014.

The final meeting in the series is scheduled to be held Wednesday in North Olmstead, Ohio.

Stakeholder action

Gordon Walker, a Canadian IJC commissioner, insists the prognosis for the lake improves dramatically if governments on both sides of the border implement its recommendations.

“It could be done instantly, if everybody buys in,” Walker told The Buffalo News in Port Stanley.

Given the strong agricultural lobby in Maumee watershed areas of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, that might be easier said than done.

“We simply make the recommendations. The governments have to carry the ball,” said Walker. “It’s with the governments where the ball often gets dropped.

“I don’t understand why people aren’t marching in the streets in Toledo saying ‘we want our lake back.’ ”

Ohio state officials are more prosaic.

“The public is becoming more educated,” said Dina Pierce, spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

And, as that’s happening, Pierce said Ohio officials from its Department of Natural Resources, EPA and Department of Agriculture are “working really closely with the stakeholders in the agricultural community” to generate new ideas and hone the best management practices on farms.

Meanwhile, she said, combined municipal sewage overflows are being mitigated, such as with the help of rain gardens that collect stormwater.

“Those small projects add up,” Pierce added.