‘Severe’ algal blooms forecast this summer on Lake Erie

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News
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Researchers predict a “severe” season for the harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie’s troublesome western basin — worse than the blooms last summer that led a two-day shutdown of water to more than 400,000 residents in Toledo and Michigan’s Monroe County.

This summer, experts forecast a large crop of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, where water from the region is drawn. But it doesn’t mean public health will be imperiled by toxic algae getting pushed into the drinking water system, they said Thursday.

“While this year’s toxic algae forecast for Lake Erie calls for a bloom larger that the one that shut down the Toledo area’s water supply last summer, bloom predictions, regardless of size, do not necessarily correlate with public health risk ...,” said Don Scavia, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Michigan, in a statement. “Local weather conditions, such as wind direction and water temperature, also play a role.”

The situation is already bleak after weeks of heavy rains carrying phosphorus into the lake, said Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper Inc.

“We sent two planes up last week to survey over 100 miles of area where lagoons are,” Bihn wrote Thursday in response to questions. “We know they are chock-full (of algae).”

Algae has become a regular sight on Lake Erie. The shallow waters combine with phosphorous that is washed into the lake to grow the green bacteria that collect on the surface. Blooms developing in the western basin can easily be seen on satellite images.

This year’s algae severity index for Lake Erie is expected to hit 8.7 on a scale of 10, compared with last year’s measurements that reached 6.5.

“While we are forecasting a severe bloom, much of the lake will be fine most of the time,” said Richard Stumpf, an ecological forecasting researcher at the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. “The bloom will develop from west to east in the Lake Erie Western Basin, beginning this month. It is important to note that these effects will vary with winds and will peak in September.”

Brad Wurfel, spokesman for Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said NOAA’s forecast is a good reminder that work to reduce phosphorus inputs to Michigan’s surface waters, including Western Lake Erie, is an important priority.

“It could be years before basin-wide reductions from Michigan, Ohio and Ontario bear results, but finally taking action on this decades-old problem is critical to the long-term health of the lake,” Wurfel said.

Chuck Campbell, Toledo’s water treatment commissioner, could not be reached Thursday for comment. But the city last month addressed concerns over water quality on its website.

“The City of Toledo has put advanced safe treatment processes in place this year to prepare for algal bloom season,” it reads. “We have quadrupled potassium permanganate feeds at the intake crib, quadrupled powder activated carbon at the Low Service Pump Station, brought online a new chlorine facility, and we now have 21 (water monitoring devices) blanketed throughout the western basin of Lake Erie that will provide for an early warning system.

“These ... will provide advance notice of conditions in the Lake that are conducive to creating (harmful algal blooms).”

The website includes a water quality dashboard, featuring a meter that on Thursday pointed to green or “clear.”

One of the main sources of phosphorus loading in Lake Erie are the large livestock farms operating within the watershed. Bihn and other conservationists have argued for mandatory restrictions on the way animal manure is applied and handled by those operations.

Considering the wet conditions the region has experienced in the past month, she argues the time for action is now.

“Animal manure lagoons are full,” Bihn wrote. “The ground is saturated and manure should be banned from being applied. ... Simply put there is no place to put the manure with the full lagoons and saturated ground. This is at a crisis point to stop the flow of manure into Lake Erie.”


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