U.S. gives $3.1M for Lake Erie algae projects

Detroit News wire and staff

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is allocating $3.1 million from a Great Lakes cleanup fund for efforts to reduce harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie that hit water supplies in Michigan and Ohio.

The money will be divided among three federal agencies and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

More than 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, and most of Monroe County in southeastern Michigan were ordered not to drink tap water for more than two days in early August because of pollution from microcystin, a toxin generated by a harmful algae bloom.

EPA regional chief Susan Hedman says some of the projects will improve water quality testing and algae bloom forecasting. Others will expand financial assistance for agricultural conservation practices in the western Lake Erie Basin.

The Michigan department will get $197,000 to improve farm nutrient management.

The latest funding is in addition to $8.6 million in grants from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative awarded to Ohio, Indiana and Michigan in September for algae reduction programs.

Algae outbreaks also contribute to low-oxygen “dead zones” in Lake Erie’s deeper waters and harm tourism by fouling beaches.

Phosphorus, from sewage discharges and farming operations in the form of manure and fertilizer, is considered the main culprit in the formation of algae.

Large-scale farming operations have received scrutiny in the wake of the August tap water scare. Despite the arrival of federal money, some critics continue to urge greater regulation.

State and agriculture industry officials counter that letting farms voluntarily adopt new practices will be enough to cut the amount of phosphorus going into Lake Erie.

“What was being done 10 years ago is not good enough now,” said Joan Rose, a professor and co-director at Michigan State University’s Center for Water Sciences, in the fall. “Why? Because we have more people, we have more animals and the climate is changing. Those things are converging to cause more and more problems.”

Both sides have agreed that more needs to be done.

“Do we recognize (phosphorus) is a problem? Absolutely,” said Jim Bynum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association. “Do we have a silver-bullet solution? No way. ... We want to make sure what happens in addressing it makes sense.”

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has several initiatives designed to address phosphorus going into western Lake Erie. They include:

■Placing phosphorus limits on wastewater treatment plants.

■Urging other states to adopt Michigan’s ban on phosphorus-based lawn fertilizers.

■Devising ways of attacking invasive species such as the quagga and zebra mussels that contribute to the proliferation of algae.

Large farm operations that apply fertilizer or manure to the land can’t use them until they are certified through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting.

But there is little monitoring in place to make sure manure and fertilizers are applied at the right time and in the right way.

Dan Wyant, DEQ’s director, said voluntary measures are likely to produce better results than regulation.

“I feel that if you use the command-and-control approach, you’ll get the absolute minimum in response,” he told The Detroit News in the fall.

The Michigan Agri-Business Association has been promoting a new fertilizer certification program for its members, Bynum said.

Operations using large amounts of fertilizer or manure would be required to complete a training session on how and when applications should be administered.

“We’re going to do this before it becomes a mandate,” Bynum said earlier in the fall.

Like Wyant, Bynum said he wants to wait and see how efforts to study the scope of the problem combine with new technologies and voluntary measures to bring algae in Lake Erie under control.

Members of the Sierra Club in Michigan argue the federal government should attach conditions to federal aid for large livestock operations because they generate the largest amounts of phosphorus.

Officials with the conservation group contend that allowing those operations to continue harmful practices while receiving state and federal money is essentially subsidizing bad habits.