By fall in 2011, the scummy algae that started at the west end of Lake Erie, near the mouth of the Maumee River, extended all the way to Cleveland. This was the largest algae bloom in the lake’s recorded history — foul, disruptive and dangerous. On Monday, a group of scientists reported their findings on the reasons for the accelerated and toxic presence of the algae.
An old nemesis returned in a big way. In the 1960s and 1970s, phosphorous increasingly flowed into the shallowest of the Great Lakes, largely from the use of laundry detergents. The federal government and Canada applied strong regulation, and the quality of the lake improved dramatically, a return-from-the-nearly-dead success story. Then, in the 1990s, algae resurfaced, the trouble deepening during the past decade, until the explosion two years ago, the peak intensity three times greater than any other bloom on record.
The scientists point to problems with farm management, recent (and often well-intended) methods of fertilization and tillage making more likely that phosphorous would be part of the runoff from fields. That is especially true in view of the Indiana and Ohio farmlands the Maumee visits on its way to Lake Erie. Fertilize, for instance, in the fall, and the relatively bare land is more vulnerable to runoff. The same applies earlier in the year with fertilizer often coated on the surface.
Add the drenching rains of two years ago, and the result was the largest phosphorous load since 1975, or when close monitoring began.
The weather aggravated things in another way, little wind to break up the collecting algae.
A rare event? The scientists worry this may be the pattern, as climate change takes greater hold, the conditions ripe for algae blooms. That isn’t good for Lake Erie, the Great Lakes, Ohio or the region. The algae pollutes drinking water that eventually goes to 2.8 million customers. The lake already suffers from dead zones, the algae deepening the problem, putting at further risk livelihoods tied to the fishing and recreation industries.
Some immediate steps worth taking involve adjusting farming patterns. Actually, they already are in motion through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an ambitious federal project to bolster and repair the ecosystems of a natural treasure and national resource. Lately, U.S. Rep. David Joyce, a Geauga County Republican, has been at the front of a bipartisan effort to build support for maintaining sufficient funding of the initiative, for adding another $300 million in the next federal budget.
Know that the total cost has been put at $25 billion. So far, $1 billion or so has been dedicated. Now that scientists have examined the algae threat and sounded no small warning, hard to believe any Ohio Democrat or Republican in Congress wouldn’t join Joyce in the cause. Lake Erie, too, is part of the legacy to our children.