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The algae blooms that plague Lake Erie in the summer make the water thick and mucky, like pea soup, with a disturbing bright green color. It can kill wildlife and pets, and make people sick. In 2014, the algal toxin microcystin poisoned the tap water distributed to 500,000 people in the Toledo area for three days.

Despite billions of dollars in investments to fix the problem, there’s been no clear decrease in the pollutants feeding persistent algae blooms in Lake Erie over the past five years, according to research released by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The problem is most significant in the western basin of Lake Erie, around Toledo, where the Maumee River empties into the lake.

LISTEN: “Lake Erie’s Toxic Algae Still a Big Problem Despite Voluntary Measures”

 

Excess nutrients, like nitrogen and especially phosphorus, feed the blooms. 

Cathy Alexander, surface water division supervisor for the Ohio EPA held a webinar this week analyzing water quality in Ohio and pointed to farms as the main culprit of nutrients in the lake. 

“Approximately 88-percent of the annual load from the Maumee River to Lake Erie comes from non-point sources,” Alexander said in the webinar. “We would certainly say a lot of the loading at this point is coming from agriculture.”

Nutrient laden commercial fertilizer that’s sprayed on crops, and manure from large animal feeding operations find their way into the water.   

RESPONSE TO THE 2014 WATER CRISIS

Since the 2014 crisis in Toledo, Ohio joined the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement, and has taken other actions.

Ohio also set its own goals of reducing phosphorus runoff by 20 percent by 2020 and 40 percent by 2025.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation says it’s been working with farmers on many voluntary measures to reduce runoff of manure and fertilizers into the water.

But the Ohio EPA data show that so far that’s not making a difference. The agency looked at nutrient loads from 2013 through 2017 into Ohio waterways and found no trend of overall decrease into western Lake Erie.

In March, the Ohio EPA announced it would designate the open waters of Lake Erie’s western basin as “impaired” for recreation because of harmful algae, and for drinking water because of the toxin microcystin. Michigan and Ontario have already made impairment designations for Lake Erie, which require that some kind of plan is put in place to reduce the pollution. Ohio’s action still needs approval from the U.S. EPA.

Mike Ferner started a group called Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie in response to the algae issue, and was party to a federal lawsuit over the impairment status.

“It’s just the first step, and it’s just a shame that it’s taken this long,” he said.

The judge gave the U.S. EPA 30 days to rule on Ohio’s impaired status.

“Assuming that U.S. EPA approves Ohio’s recommendation,” Ferner said, “then that begins a process under the Clean Water Act to inventory the pollution and to find out the sources and amounts. This means a lot of in-the-field testing. We’re advocating that it be done under the provisions of the Clean Water Act, and that we go all the way back to the headwaters and sample these streams and ditches that wind up flowing into Lake Erie.”

HOLDING FARM OPERATIONS ACCOUNTABLE

That process could also require farms to create nutrient management plans to reduce the amount phosphorus and nitrogen pollution they release into rivers that feed Lake Erie. Ferner said he especially wants the big animal feeding operations to be held accountable for runoff.

This map contains a summary for each watershed, large river, and Lake Erie assessment unit in Ohio. [Click to view the interactive map]

Larry Antosch, director of environmental policy with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, says new state laws require farmers to get certified to apply fertilizer, and put limits on when it can be applied, in an effort to reduce runoff. He says the state needs to slow down and see if these measures make a difference.

“Natural systems need time to adjust. There is a lag time in an agricultural system –anywhere from 10 years, plus– for the changes in the landscape (what we’re doing in the field) to start showing up in some of the stream monitoring stations,” Antosch said.

The Toledo Blade newspaper, which has covered this extensively, published an editorial partly about that response, to slow down farm regulation. It’s titled Lake Erie Shame.

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Photo (top): NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of Lake Erie in late September. Credit: Nasa Earth Observatory