For Ailing Lake Erie, with the Rains Come the Algae

By Wines, Michael | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, March 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

For Ailing Lake Erie, with the Rains Come the Algae


Wines, Michael, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


TOLEDO, Ohio -- For those who live and play on the shores of Lake Erie, the spring rains that will begin falling here soon are less a blessing than a portent. They could threaten the very future of the lake itself.

Lake Erie is sick. A thick and growing coat of toxic algae appears each summer, so vast that in 2011 it covered a sixth of its waters, contributing to an expanding dead zone on its bottom, reducing fish populations, fouling beaches and crippling a tourism industry that generates more than $10 billion in revenue annually.

The spring rains reliably predict how serious the summer algae bloom will be: The more frequent and heavy the downpours, the worse the outbreak. And this year the National Weather Service says there is a higher probability than elsewhere of above-normal spring rains along the lake's west end, where the algae first appear. Private forecaster AccuWeather predicts a wetter-than-usual March and April throughout the region.

It is perhaps the greatest peril the lake has faced since the 1960s, when relentless and unregulated dumping of sewage and industrial pollutants spawned similar algae blooms and earned it the nickname "North America's Dead Sea." Erie recovered, thanks to a multibillion-dollar cleanup by the United States and Canada that became a legendary environmental success story.

But while the sewage and pollutants are vastly reduced, the blooms have returned, bigger than ever.

Once, fisheries and sports anglers pulled 5 million walleye from the rejuvenated lake every year. Today the catch is roughly one-fifth that, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Commercial fisheries' smelt catch is three-fifths of past levels. The number of charter fishing companies has dropped 40 percent. Sport fish like walleye and yellow perch are deserting the lake's center and moving shoreward in search of oxygen and food.

"We've seen this lake go from the poster child for pollution problems to the best example in the world of ecosystem recovery. Now it's headed back again," said Jeffrey M. Reutter, who directs the Sea Grant College Program at the Ohio State University.

The algae problem is hardly isolated. Similar blooms are strangling other lakes in North America and elsewhere, including Lake Winnipeg, one of Canada's largest, and some bays in Lake Huron.

The algae are fed by phosphorus, the same chemical that U.S. and Canadian authorities spent billions to reduce - for good, they believed - in the 1970s and '80s. This time, new farming techniques, climate change and even a change in Lake Erie's ecosystem make phosphorus pollution more intractable.

Like plants, algae thrive on a phosphorus diet. Decades ago, some 64 million pounds of phosphorus flowed into Lake Erie each year from industrial and sewer outfalls, leaky septic tanks and runoff from fertilized lawns and farms.

The U.S. and Canadian governments responded by capping household detergent phosphates, reining in factory pollutants and spending $8 billion to upgrade sewage plants. Phosphorus level plunged by two thirds, and the algae subsided. But in the mid-1990s, it began creeping back.

"2002 was the last year that we didn't have much of a bloom," said Thomas Bridgeman, a professor at the Lake Erie Center at the University of Toledo. "2008, '09 and '10 were really bad years for algal blooms.

"And then we got 2011."

2011 was the wettest spring on record. That summer's algae bloom, mostly poisonous blue-green algae called Microcystis, sprawled nearly 120 miles, from Toledo to past Cleveland. It produced lake-water concentrations of microcystin, a liver toxin, that were 1,200 times World Health Organization limits, tainting the drinking water for 2.8 million consumers.

Dead algae sink to the lake bed, where bacteria that decompose the algae consume most of the oxygen. A dead zone now covers a large portion of the lake bottom in bad years. …

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