In 2017, ‘severe’ algal blooms once again observed in Lake Erie

In May and late June, heavy rains fell on the Maumee River, which begins in Fort Wayne in Indiana, runs through agricultural areas in northeast Ohio, and eventually flows into Lake Erie in Toledo. The river, scientists say, has high concentrations of phosphorus, and with all of the spring and summer precipitation, those nutrients discharged into the smallest of the five Great Lakes.
The end result: One of the worst observable algal blooms in Lake Erie. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only the years 2011, 2013 and 2015 had more severe blooms. The federal agency’s findings were the latest reminder of the “poor” and “deteriorating” health of Lake Erie (see table), and of the importance of states and the province of Ontario reaching their agreed-upon goal: reduce nutrient runoff into the lake by 40 percent by 2025. 

Sandra Kosek-Sills, executive director of the Lake Erie Commission, says her state is taking a multifaceted approach to curb nutrient loadings. The strategies include improving operations at smaller wastewater treatment plants and better maintenance of home septic systems. Under Ohio legislation signed into law two years ago (SB 1), dredged material cannot be dumped into Lake Erie by 2020, but Kosek-Sills says the state is trying to find uses for the material now — to help create coastal wetlands, for example.

But the highest priority, and biggest challenge, is reducing runoff from agricultural operations.
The western Lake Erie basin, Kosek-Sills notes, has 4 million acres of agricultural land. “To see real progress, you need at least 50 percent, 60 percent or 70 percent implementation of [nutrient-reduction] practices by farmers in the basin,” she adds.
Government assistance (technical and/or financial) can help producers adopt these practices and keep environmentally sensitive lands out of production. In addition, recent laws in Ohio prevent manure and fertilizers from being spread on frozen, snow-covered or saturated ground and require farmers to be trained and certified before applying fertilizer to their land.
But a new study from the Alliance for the Great Lakes and other environmental groups says that in order to meet the 40 percent reduction goal, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario have to do more. “The actions that have been taken up to now just aren’t enough; we need a more comprehensive approach,” says Molly Flanagan, the alliance’s vice president of policy. The study, “Rescuing Lake Erie: An Assessment of Progress,” details 12 policy actions and singles out three as most urgent: 1) require comprehensive nutrient-reduction planning on all farms, 2) completely ban the winter spreading of fertilizer and manure, and 3) invest in stronger water quality monitoring.
Stateline Midwest: November 20171.83 MB