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Toxic algae, dead zones threaten Great Lakes

Lake Erie, declared “dead” in the 1960s and brought back to life in the ’70s, may now be on the critical list again. The worst toxic algae bloom in recorded history is plaguing Lake Erie. For weeks now, the current, smelly bloom has virtually covered the western basin of Erie and is moving eastward, where it’s expected to create larger dead zones.

The culprit is mainly fertilizer runoff from farms, especially phosphorus that drains into rivers that flow into Lake Erie. Rivers that feed western Lake Erie have been determined to have particularly high phosphorus levels. This triggers algae blooms that begin with the spring rains and last until fall. Once the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom, but it sucks up oxygen there and creates a dead zone in which fish and plant life cannot be sustained.

The ramifications for boaters and anglers are huge. Lake Erie is the largest producer of fish, both commercial and recreational, of the five Great Lakes. It’s a multi-billion-dollar annual economic boost to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario. Lake Erie has the largest number of registered boats on the Great Lakes. Moreover, the smelly algae covers shorelines and beaches, is as thick as 2 feet in some places, and can sicken or even kill people.

The National Wildlife Federation, testifying last week before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, said the toxin from the algae in the current bloom was measured at 1,000 times the World Health Organization guidelines for drinking water. Cities like Toledo are reportedly spending thousands of dollars per day to keep the algae out of their water supplies, as most cities on the Great Lakes draw their drinking water from the lakes.

It’s a “nutrient pollution epidemic,” says Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center. In a report co-authored by Julie Mida Hinderer, she notes: “Rapid and drastic ecosystem changes are altering the Great Lakes from top to bottom. The impacts we’re witnessing are a sign that the Great Lakes need urgent help.”

Between the algae blooms and invasive species like zebra mussels and, especially, quagga mussels, we’re seeing a collapse of the base of the food web resulting in declines in desirable sport fish populations, such as lake whitefish and salmon in Lake Huron.

Between the mid-1960s and 1990, phosphorus levels dropped after efforts to change farming practices and a ban on phosphorus in detergents. But in 1995, levels began going up again, leading to huge blooms in Lake Erie starting in 2003.

“It’s now out of control,” says Ken Alvey, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association. “We can’t even begin to calculate the potential damage to our industry if action isn’t taken to change allowable farming practices on lands adjacent to our lakes and rivers.”

Lake Erie may be the problem’s poster child right now, but it’s not the only problem area. Grand Lake St. Marys in central Ohio, surrounded by farmland, has so much toxic algae in it that the state is prohibiting swimming, and boaters are being advised to find another lake.

Other blooms that could be in the news include Saginaw Bay (Michigan), Green Bay (Wisconsin), and along Lake Michigan’s coastline, among others. Federal agencies rate near-shore areas in all lakes but Lake Superior as “poor” for nutrient phosphorus concentrations. Isn’t all this enough of a wake up call?

The damage can be reversed, but it will take mandated changes in farming practices, and that must become a priority to protect the lakes, the fisheries, the water supplies and the economic benefits. The Great Lakes represent one-third of the nation’s recreational fleet. The boating and fishing industries should move this issue up on the priority list.

Comments

8 comments on “Toxic algae, dead zones threaten Great Lakes

  1. Neil Ross

    So what happened to the zebra mussels? Last I heard they were cleaning up Lake Erie and the other great lakes. One Ohio marina manager during the hight of the mussel blooms told me that he could see the lake bed under his docks for the first time in his life, as well as all the tools they lost over the decades. Let’s hope the mussels do the job of quickly filtering out the algae bloom.

    Lake Erie is not and never was dead. But it is a vast ecosystem that does get pushed around by man-made trauma that cause it to lose it balance will rebound.

    Today we can perhaps correctly point our finger at the farmers, but what of urban run-off, home lawn/garden chemicals, and yes even the boating industry. Next time anyone of us points the finger of blame at someone else, take a good look at your hand and see that 4 fingers are pointing back to you.

    We are all contributors to environmental stresses.

  2. Kurt Hoehne

    Wow, do I hear Norm calling for regulation?

    It’s stuff like this that should get deregulation zealots to at least listen when environmentalists talk and not just shout them down.

  3. C. Moore

    Farmers growing corn, that gets made into ethanol that wreaks havoic on marine fuel systems.
    The citizens of the great lakes need to unit & get out & occupy all the farms to show those greedy SOB corporate farmers the people will not take it any more….. Or americans can all go on a diet & boycott products that come from corn & soy beans…… Plow on!!

  4. LARRY

    FOLKS………..IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE
    SUCH A RADICAL ONE WHICH I DON’T THINK WE ARE QUITE READY FOR YET, NOR CAN IMAGINE WITH OUR PRESENT THINKING!
    THE THRESHOLD WE HAPPEN TO BE STANDING ON, PRESENTS SUCH AN EXTRAORDINARY AND NEW SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES, OF WHICH IS HARD TO FATHOM………..WE’VE BEEN WAY TOO BUSY TRYING TO MAKE A BUCK, WITH LITTLE REGARD TO THE CONSEQUENCES ON A WORLD WE WERE BORN INTO, AND THRUST UPON BY OUR ANCESTORS. LITTLE DO WE KNOW, FOR OUR CONDITIONING HAS DONE LITTLE PREPARING US FOR WHAT THE WORLD OF TOMORROW WILL REQUIRE OF ITS INHABITANTS.
    WITH THE CHALLENGE OF SURVIVAL OF THE SPECIE IN A RAPID POPULATION GAIN WHERE IN 20 YEARS WE COLD BE DEALING WITH AN ADDITIONAL 2 BILLION OF US, AND WHAT THAT MEANS IN EVERY ASPECT OF EXISTENCE, RESOURCES, APPLICATIONS, ATTITUDES, TECHNOLOGY AND CONDITIONS,.
    NO MATTER HOW WE GO ABOUT IT, THE SOCIOECONOMIC COMPLEXITIES OF OUR WORLD TODAY IS DEMANDING STRICT SHIFTS IN LATERAL THINKING, AS WELL AS NEW DIRECTIONS AND INVESTMENTS FROM OUR GOVERNMENT,. I THINK WE ARE FINALLY REACHING A POINT WHERE THE STANDARD POLITICAL BEHAVIOR OF THE PAST IS NO LONGER ACCEPTABLE.
    SPENDING BILLIONS TO MAINTAIN VARIOUS WARS AND THE MILITARY MACHINERY IS NO LONGER AN ACCEPTABLE OPTION WE CAN AFFORD. THE RECENT 99% PUBLIC OUTCRY IS JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG………IT IS NOT HARD TO SEE THIS CHANGE IS TAKING PLACE GLOBALLY, FOR NOW PEACEFULLY………..LETS HOPE THOSE IN POWER WAKE UP AND MAKE THE APPROPRIATE POSITIVE DECISIONS REQUIRED, AND DO IT SON, I HATE TO THINK WHAT COULD HAPPEN IF IT ESCALATES TO THE NEXT LEVEL……… IT COULD MAKE WATER QUALITY IN THE LAKES SEEM LIKE A FACIAL PIMPLE!

  5. GTOPATRIOT

    Larry’s been spending too much time at the library reading political science diatribes. Give us some ideas that will work in the real world !!!

  6. maddog

    What has happened on Lake Erie is like what has happened on Chesapeake Bay or the red tide issues along the coast. Clean water is an absolute need for a vibrant marine and waterfront lifestyle. Choking the water with toxic algae that can harm or kill your pets, your fishing or you, will kill the boating industry. Wake up, the results of aggressive farming techniques funded with government subsidies to produce ethanol corn and soybean crops are 85% to blame. Old sewer systems and combined sewer overflows from rains make up the 15%. Unintended consequences of green energy subsidies and greedy farming, of plowing under conservation easements and farm field drain tile create a direct steroid like injection of fertilizer to feed lake algae. It will take years to recover and unabated and without exposing the problem we help continue the poor watershed management practices. Over exposing the issue we give new boaters another reason to say no to Discover Boating.

    I look to have a new festival called Green Ice Fishing Festival this winter on Lake Erie.

  7. C. Moore

    Larry shows up here occaionally to preach off subject in Caps (yelling on the internet) about we the evil distructive humans that are causing the end of the world- why would a loving God create such distructive beings??? I’m not sure which Terminator movie he’s watching this week, maybe terra Nova. Larry has given up, dropped out & like all spoiled children & adults wants someone else (gov’t) to do what is required of everyone, to stand up, contribute & participate.
    Larry God helps thoses that help themselves…
    Look around everything is cleaner & safer today in the USA than in the past 60+ years. Water, air, cars, boats, etc. you name it.
    Try this chant “We are the 53!!!”

  8. CaptainA

    Well, all the Republican presidential candidates was to dismantle the EPA. At least eliminating the EPA will slow down the rate of increase or decrease our taxes. Most people on these forums want the govt dismantled.

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