Now that Ohio officials have learned the problem with algae blooms on Lake Erie will be much worse than expected this year, it raises questions about the strategy to combat the problem.
Ohio, Michigan and other Great Lakes states as well as Canada have drawn up a plan to reduce phosphorus loads into western Lake Erie by 40 percent below 2008 levels. The target is to get there by 2025. A major part of the plan is to “encourage” better farming practices, such as avoiding applying manure on frozen or saturated fields.
We agree that changing the hearts and minds of farmers to recognize their role in a clean Lake Erie is a must. But maybe it’s time to quit “encouraging” them to make changes in their operations and start “mandating” compliance.
The importance of a healthy Lake Erie cannot be overstated. It’s the primary source of drinking water for many communities and is an economic driver for Ohio. More than 10 million trips are made to Lake Erie shores and islands each year, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Midwest. Visitors spent more than $1.9 billion in 2015, according to TourismOhio.
It’s also known the biggest culprit for the phosphorus that produces the algae blooms is the runoff from the fields from the thousands of farms in the Lake Erie basin. An estimated 85 percent of that phosphorus is traced to the Maumee River, which stretches 137 miles from Fort Wayne to Toledo and is fed by many tributaries, including the Blanchard and Auglaize rivers in the Lima region.
The algae blooms usually begin in late July and can continue into October. This year’s bloom could measure as high as 9.5 on a severity index developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The largest blooms since the problem returned to Lake Erie in the late 1990s was 10.5 in 2015.
Blooms of such size can become harmful to aquatic life and even humans, the NOAA said.
This year’s bloom is being fed by the runoff from six major storms between March 1 and July 12. Even so, the answer to the problem cannot be to cross our fingers and hope that seasonal fluctuations in weather will keep us safe.
It was the alarming levels of a toxin produced by blooms that caused a do-not-drink advisory that shut down the water supply for almost 500,000 people in Toledo and southeast Michigan for a weekend in August 2014.
A repeat of that is always a possibility until Ohio and neighboring states can ensure lower levels of phosphorus enter the lake.