Spread of Lake Erie algae raises alarm across region

Kim Kozlowski, and Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Toledo — For nearly a week, the Maumee River that runs through the downtown has looked like the Chicago River after it’s dyed for St. Patrick’s Day.

An algal bloom has turned the river, western edge of Lake Erie from here up to Canada florescent green, alarming residents and prompting local officials to lobby the Environmental Protection Agency to take action, even calling on President Donald Trump to intervene.

“There is something very wrong with our country when our rivers and lakes turn green,” Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson wrote in a letter to Trump this week.

Phosphorus-rich fertilizers and manure running off from large livestock farms into Lake Erie, some carried by the Maumee River, have fed the growth of the bloom.

360 view: Algae bloom in Toledo, from Toledo Aerial Media

The mayor has called on Gov. John Kasich and the federal government to declare the western basin of Lake Erie impaired so to force the federal government to respond with a plan to improve the water quality.

Despite no reports of toxicity warnings, scores of residents in Toledo on Wednesday were stocking up on bottled water on fears the algal bloom could lead to unsafe drinking water like the one in summer 2014 when Toledo and some Michigan residents couldn’t use the water for days.

“I am worried because they’re always telling us how good our water is. ‘We’re the best in the whole state here in Toledo,’” said Gwen Henson, 67, of Toledo on Wednesday. “That’s not true because every time you turn around, something is wrong with the water.”

Toledo’s water department provided records to the Toledo Blade that show toxic concentrations as of Friday remained low enough that the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant was able to safely treat the water.

As of Wednesday, Toledo’s water quality was still considered clear and safe to drink with less than 5 parts per billion of microcystin (toxins) in untreated water in the intake crib in Lake Erie and, more importantly, not detected in tap water.

But concerns remain, Hicks-Hudson said, as dead fish along the banks are an indication the environment is suffering.

“It is time to come together and get to the heart of the issue,” she said via email, urging for tougher enforcement of manure laws, the impairment designation and changes to the Clean Water Act. “We need real change in agricultural practices, so we can protect and restore our water.”

Harmful blooms are overgrowths of algae in water as a result of too many nutrients that get in the water and can lead to sickness in human and pets, and even death, according to the EPA. The typical season for blooms runs from late July to October.

Hicks-Hudson noted manure spread on farmland before a thunderstorm arrived in late August led to the death of 15,000 fishes who were killed in Beaver Creek, a community part of the Lake Erie Basin.

Chris Winslow, a researcher who studies Lake Erie at Ohio State University, said Wednesday that the western basin of Lake Erie’s bloom is on track with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s July forecast, which anticipated a bloom of 7.5 on a scale of 10, making it at least the fourth largest bloom on record.

But Winslow noted a large bloom and a toxic bloom are not synonymous as organisms on the water sometimes produce toxins and sometimes they do not. He pointed to 2015 as the largest bloom on record for the western basin of Lake Erie but not the most toxic.

But 2014’s bloom went from nontoxic to toxic quickly, he said, and tools did not exist then to quickly test the water quality. But new instruments can spot toxins in drinking water more quickly so that treatments can be adjusted, making another similar crisis unlikely.

“So unless you hear an advisory from a municipality, the water is safe to drink,” Winslow said.

In 2014, Toledo advised about 400,000 residents in Toledo, most of its suburbs and a few areas in southeastern Michigan not to brush their teeth with or boil the water because that would only increase the toxin's concentration.

About 30,000 customers in four Monroe County communities in southern Michigan get water from Toledo: Luna Pier, Bedford and Erie townships and a portion of LaSalle Township.

This year’s bloom benefited from a fairly wet spring, he said. The size of a bloom is influenced by winds, temperature and rain.

Winslow said fish have also been tested, and they do not absorb the toxins, so it’s safe to eat a fish that has been caught.

But Winslow suggested erring on the side of caution when considering a swim in waters with algal blooms.

“The beaches are what you need to pay attention to,” Winslow said. “Pay attention to advisories, and if there is green on or in the water, err on the safe side for swimming in bloom water.”

Algae growth has increased significantly during the last 10 years in Lake Erie, a source of drinking water for 12 million people in the U.S. and Canada, according to the EPA. It is a major threat to the Lake Erie’s $12.9 billion tourism and fishing industries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate this week passed a measure that would reauthorize the government’s program to research and respond to harmful algal blooms, including monitoring and mitigation efforts in fresh-water bodies such as Lake Erie. The bill still needs to pass the House.

But not everyone was worried about the algal bloom Wednesday.

Novi resident Tom Szafran went fishing at 9 a.m. on Lake Erie and returned as the sun started to set. Chopping up the perch he caught, he said he wasn’t worried about eating the fish.

“We wouldn’t be concerned about feeding them to our grandchildren,” said Szafran, as a group of men skinned fished under a hut by the water at Monroe’s Sterling State Park.

Szafran pointed out that algal blooms aren’t a new threat.

“It’s been going on since the ’60s when women used to do their laundry, and phosphates were in it,” he said.

Staff writer Sarah Rahal contributed.