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Toxic algae, dead zones threaten Great Lakes

Lake Erie, declared “dead” in the 1960s and brought back to life in the ’70s, may now be on the critical list again. The worst toxic algae bloom in recorded history is plaguing Lake Erie. For weeks now, the current, smelly bloom has virtually covered the western basin of Erie and is moving eastward, where it’s expected to create larger dead zones.

The culprit is mainly fertilizer runoff from farms, especially phosphorus that drains into rivers that flow into Lake Erie. Rivers that feed western Lake Erie have been determined to have particularly high phosphorus levels. This triggers algae blooms that begin with the spring rains and last until fall. Once the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom, but it sucks up oxygen there and creates a dead zone in which fish and plant life cannot be sustained.

The ramifications for boaters and anglers are huge. Lake Erie is the largest producer of fish, both commercial and recreational, of the five Great Lakes. It’s a multi-billion-dollar annual economic boost to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario. Lake Erie has the largest number of registered boats on the Great Lakes. Moreover, the smelly algae covers shorelines and beaches, is as thick as 2 feet in some places, and can sicken or even kill people.

The National Wildlife Federation, testifying last week before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, said the toxin from the algae in the current bloom was measured at 1,000 times the World Health Organization guidelines for drinking water. Cities like Toledo are reportedly spending thousands of dollars per day to keep the algae out of their water supplies, as most cities on the Great Lakes draw their drinking water from the lakes.

It’s a “nutrient pollution epidemic,” says Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center. In a report co-authored by Julie Mida Hinderer, she notes: “Rapid and drastic ecosystem changes are altering the Great Lakes from top to bottom. The impacts we're witnessing are a sign that the Great Lakes need urgent help.”

Between the algae blooms and invasive species like zebra mussels and, especially, quagga mussels, we’re seeing a collapse of the base of the food web resulting in declines in desirable sport fish populations, such as lake whitefish and salmon in Lake Huron.

Between the mid-1960s and 1990, phosphorus levels dropped after efforts to change farming practices and a ban on phosphorus in detergents. But in 1995, levels began going up again, leading to huge blooms in Lake Erie starting in 2003.

“It’s now out of control,” says Ken Alvey, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association. “We can’t even begin to calculate the potential damage to our industry if action isn’t taken to change allowable farming practices on lands adjacent to our lakes and rivers.”

Lake Erie may be the problem’s poster child right now, but it’s not the only problem area. Grand Lake St. Marys in central Ohio, surrounded by farmland, has so much toxic algae in it that the state is prohibiting swimming, and boaters are being advised to find another lake.

Other blooms that could be in the news include Saginaw Bay (Michigan), Green Bay (Wisconsin), and along Lake Michigan’s coastline, among others. Federal agencies rate near-shore areas in all lakes but Lake Superior as “poor” for nutrient phosphorus concentrations. Isn’t all this enough of a wake up call?

The damage can be reversed, but it will take mandated changes in farming practices, and that must become a priority to protect the lakes, the fisheries, the water supplies and the economic benefits. The Great Lakes represent one-third of the nation’s recreational fleet. The boating and fishing industries should move this issue up on the priority list.

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