Don’t Lose Sight of the Slime

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Lake Erie’s algae blooms have been a problem for years.

Lake Erie’s algae blooms have been a problem for years.

It’s midsummer, and it’s slime time again. But we’ve been so preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact that it might seem as if the toxic algae has disappeared.

News flash: It hasn’t.

Reports are coming in from many locations, led by Lake Erie, which has been an icon for pollution-fed algae in our nation’s waterways. Toxic microcystin has showed up in concentrations above the 20-parts-per-billion threshold for safe recreational activity. This is especially true in Toledo’s Maumee River, which is the biggest feeder of nitrogen and dissolved reactive phosphorus into Lake Erie.

Satellite imagery indicates the lake’s annual invasion of green goop is forming. It’s predicted to hit the Lake Erie islands region, a hugely popular area for boaters and anglers from Ohio, Michigan and Ontario. The green gunk will also assault shoreline communities on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the lake.

Warning that there could be extremely toxic concentrations in various places, NOAA has predicted only an overall “medium-sized bloom” for Lake Erie this summer, which is as encouraging as Mount Vesuvius was to urban renewal. But the fact remains that progress toward ending the annual bloom in the nation’s lakes and rivers has been far too slow.

This hinderance to good boating experiences, never mind basic health, became nationally acknowledged six years ago when the microcystins produced by the algae forced a no-drink, no-contact advisory for tap water in Toledo. But it goes further back. The blooms were noted in Lake Erie in 1995 when microcystis was determined to be the lake’s dominant algae. And, notably, both it and another algae, called planktothrix, are capable of killing humans.

NASA satellite imaging began tracking the blooms in 2002. According to Laura Johnson, director of Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research, the amount of rain runoff so far this year has been average in the Maumee River watershed, which includes 14 northwest Ohio counties. Still, there has been a higher-than-expected concentration of phosphorus.

Since 2002, we haven't had a detectable downward trend,” Johnson says, highlighting the continued inability to control total phosphorus releases, which is key to ending the algae debacle.

It’s important to understand that the algae are natural. But the slime is essentially manmade. Holding the major contributors accountable has been an abject failure on both the federal and state levels. For example, more than 12 years ago in Ohio, a task force was assembled to determine the best way to tackle Lake Erie’s problem. Since 2011, the state has upgraded sewage and drinking water plants to the tune of $3 billion, which is not a bad thing. But it has really missed the mark. Meanwhile, a much-needed agriculture nutrient-reduction strategy, which every expert acknowledges is the only way to eliminate the problem, has never gotten off the ground.

Specifically referring to a need to reduce the spreading of animal manure and other fertilizers on western Ohio farms, as well as controlling the waste from large corporate hog and cattle operations, Jeff Reutter, a highly regarded Lake Erie researcher now retired from Ohio State University and an expert I’ve known for many years, holds nothing back. “Everything we’ve done so far, trying to reach these reductions voluntarily, has had no impact,” he says. “The voluntary approach has been, I guess you’d say, a total failure.”

So what should be done? If the voluntary approaches have bombed, there should be an immediate Total Maximum Daily Load program undertaken without further delay. It would first identify the pollution sources (duh). Then it would set strict limits of allowable pollution from farm and livestock operations in the same way industries are regulated. And it would enforce those limits with the rule of law.

Good news? Well, maybe. A few months ago, the Ohio EPA reportedly agreed to begin the daily load process. But its claim that it will take two years or so to put it together makes that agency appear more hapless than Larry, Curly and Moe.

While Lake Erie is a focal point, the EPA has reported just how widespread the problem is getting. Nearly 150 public water systems in 33 states have reported algae blooms near their intakes in reservoirs or other water sources since 2017, in many cases multiple times.

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many important things to be moved to the back burner. But it doesn’t make continuing to push for genuine action on the algae problems any less necessary. Addressing the threat algae poses to drinking water should be a priority, of course. So boat dealers, marinas and marine trade associations that are encountering algae problems in their areas must be more vocal advocates for speedy action that will bring about the clean water necessary for good boating and the quality of life provided by being on the water in a boat.

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