A good news-bad news summer for Great Lakes

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The eight Great Lakes states account for fully one-third of all recreational boats in the nation. So, things that impact boating there - good or bad - can affect the bottom line of hundreds of dealers, marina owners and tens of thousands boating customers.

If spring ever settles in (been a brutally long winter), it will see a mixed bag for boating on America’s “inland seas,” the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth with 21 percent of the world's fresh water.

First, the good news is the Great Lakes are experiencing above-average water levels. These high water levels will spare dozens of harbors, dealers and marina owners from the need for expensive dredging projects this year. It couldn’t come at a better time, not just for dealers but for all boating on the Great Lakes.

Typically, shallow-draft small craft harbors are given the lowest priority for dredging by the Army Corps which focuses on dredging and maintaining busy Great Lakes commercial ports, according to Marie Strum, the Army Corps' Great Lakes Navigation Team leader. There are just a few small craft harbors that do get a Corps dredging, but since funds are not in the latest federal budget their best hope is continued high water.

A couple of examples: On Lake Erie, the harbors at Rocky River and Vermilion are Northeast Ohio's only shallow-draft recreational harbors authorized for Corps dredging. Neither has been dredged since 2004. Under average Lake Erie water levels, Rocky River requires dredging every three to four years, Vermilion Harbor every two to three years. The high water levels have allowed these harbors with their hundreds of boats to avoid unsafe navigation conditions and negative economic impacts on the boating community.

Now for the bad news: high water levels aren’t going to mitigate the serious algae bloom problem with its presence of toxin mycrocystin in the Great Lakes and in waterways across our nation. Sadly, Lake Erie has again become the poster child for algae troubles just as it was for water pollution when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. In that case, good eventually came out of it with passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 backed by hundreds of millions of federal dollars.

This spring 2017 Western Lake Erie Tributary Water Monitoring Summary, released last week by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, shows high levels of phosphorus headed to the Lake. Exacerbated by wet weather, the total phosphorus load in the Maumee River that feeds into western Lake Erie is elevated to more than twice the required reduction targets (40 percent by 2025) set by Ohio, Michigan and Ontario, Canada.

Craig W. Butler, Ohio EPA director, says more needs to be done to address the algae problem. Really? Boating organizations like the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, conservation groups, boating and fishing clubs, as well as communities along the lake’s shoreline have been calling for more action since 2014 when algae blooms cut off 500,000 Toledo area residents from using their tap water that originates from the lake.

The obvious truth is there needs to be more accountability from the agriculture industry, since livestock manure and fertilizer run-off from farms are the well-documented primary sources of phosphorus draining into lakes and rivers throughout the country. It can be over-applied far beyond crop needs.

Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeepers, points out there are no enforceable limits on agriculture to reduce the overuse of fertilizer and manure. “It’s all voluntary,” she confirms. “There are no consequences. So if agriculture is doing it voluntarily now and we have no results, then there’s nothing that requires them to change. And that’s the most troubling.”

$10 million up for grabs

A competition with a $10 million prize hopes to provide a different answer. The George Barley Water Prize, which is being administered by the Everglades Foundation in Florida, is an ongoing competition. It will award $10 million to the researcher or team that can best demonstrate a cost-effective solution for removing phosphorus from natural bodies of water.

More than 100 teams from 13 countries initially entered the competition. Ten finalists were picked last October for the next round of tests, which are being conducted in cold water conditions at Lake Simcoe in Canada. Warm water tests will be carried out in Florida. The goal is to announce a winner of the prize funded by the Scotts Miracle Gro Foundation by 2020.

A video on YouTube by National Geographic photographer Andy Mann entitled “The Race To Save Lake Erie in Ohio” was shot during last summer’s harmful algae bloom. It depicts the problem in the lake, shows interviews with local people, and briefly describes the George Barley Water Prize. 

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