One year after a toxic algae bloom covered 10 percent of Lake Erie, Ohio residents are on edge about what this summer might bring the state’s most popular tourist attraction.
The 2011 algae bloom, which covered 990 square miles of Lake Erie’s surface area, was the largest in the lake’s history. Experts have said the algae bloom was fueled by excessive amounts of phosphorus washing into the lake from farms, urban areas and municipal sewage treatment facilities; stronger storms driven by climate change and invasive mussels also contribute to the problem. (See video of it here)
Elevated concentrations of phosphorus in Lake Erie, coupled with an unusually warm spring, has anglers, tourism officials and scientists fearing this could be another bad year for toxic algae blooms.
“There’s a lot of phosphorus in the water, a lot more than there should be. It’s not good news,” said Roger Knight, Lake Erie fisheries program manager at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Knight said the algae blooms are hurting walleye and perch populations in the western and central basins of Lake Erie, but there is no evidence toxins in the algae are contaminating fish. Perch and walleye are the backbone of the lake’s multibillion dollar fishery. (Watch a video of Lake Erie angler discussing algae crisis)
“Pea soup” water threatens fishing, tourism, jobs
The unsightly algae blooms, which make the lake look like pea soup and are large enough to be seen from space, scare away anglers and tourists. Lake Erie accounts for $10 billion annually in tourism spending, one-quarter of all tourism spending in Ohio; the lake also supports 114,000 jobs in Ohio and $2.8 billion annually in wages, according to tourism officials.
“All of those things are at risk if we don’t have a healthy Lake Erie,” said Larry Fletcher, executive director of Lake Erie Shores & Islands West tourism organization. “Our message isn’t beware of the lake: We have this challenge with algae but the fishing is still good.”
Algae blooms stigmatize Lake Erie … again
The algae blooms that began surfacing in the mid 1990s are similar to those plagued the in the 1960s and ’70s, before Congress enacted laws that curbed water pollution.
Excessive amounts of phosphorus causes rampant algae growth, which leads to surface blooms and contributes to biological dead zones beneath the surface. The toxic algae poses health threats to humans and animals who come in contact with it. (Learn more about how foreign mussels and excessive phosphorus are disrupting the Great Lakes)
Sandy Bihn, the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper, said she fears the latest algae blooms will resurrect the stigma that plagued Lake Erie in the 1960 and ’70s. Back then, some media outlets reported — incorrectly — that Lake Erie was dead. Comedian Johnny Carson said the lake was “the place fish go to die.”
Lake Erie recovered in the 1980s and supported one of the world’s best walleye fisheries. The lake still supports more fish than the other four Great Lakes combined.
“Lake Erie wasn’t dead in the 1960s and it’s not dying now,” Bihn said. “The lake is sick and we need to heal it.”
We’re all part of the problem
Solving Lake Erie’s algae crisis will require changes by farmers and urban residents who use phosphorus to fertilize crops and feed lawns and golf courses. Bihn said Detroit’s massive wastewater treatment facility also must clean up its act.
Detroit discharges tens of billions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage each year into the Detroit River, which is the major source of water in Lake Erie. Detroit in recent years has also dumped sewage sludge into the Detroit and Rouge rivers, Bihn said. (Learn how curbing sewer overflows in the Great Lakes could create jobs)
Detroit’s sewage treatment facility has been in violation of the federal Clean Water Act for most of the past three decades, according to government data.
“Detroit officials say they can’t afford to fix their sewage treatment equipment, but we can’t afford to have their sewage in our lake,” Bihn said.