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Washington — The U.S. Agriculture Department is awarding $5 million to help farmers stop harmful algae blooms from forming and expanding in Lake Erie.

The funding, provided through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, will help farmers in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana take steps to help prevent phosphorus and nitrogen runoff into the Western Lake Erie Basin. This announcement comes two weeks after Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to boost efforts to address these blooms and help improve water quality in the watershed.

“No one understands the importance of clean water like our farmers and producers,” Stabenow said. “That’s why this investment is so important. While this problem cannot be solved overnight, by taking proactive steps now to manage runoff, we can begin to help prevent future blooms in Lake Erie and other parts of the Great Lakes and its watersheds. I am grateful that the secretary acted swiftly on our request for these additional funds and I will continue working with our farmers and producers, as well as conservation groups and other partners, to improve the health of our lakes.”

Michigan will receive $500,000, Ohio $3 million and Indiana $1.5 million to help farmers plant cover crops, add gypsum to soil, implement conservation tillage or no-till systems on crop fields, install agricultural drainage water management systems and implement nutrient management plans.

An image released recently by NASA Earth Observatory show large amounts of algae bloom in western Lake Erie. The algal blooms are shown as swirls of green in the image captured on July 28 by the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite.

As of Friday, the bloom had increased in size in Lake Erie compared to just last month, said Richard Stumpf, a PhD oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There’s also more bloom compared to last year, but with lower toxicity.

“The individual cells are not as toxic,” Stumpf said.

The development of algae blooms occurs each summer and peaks in September, scientists say. It is too early to tell when algae growth will slow and eventually disperse, Stumpf said.

Samples taken from Lake Erie have shown traces of the toxic algae that led to the shutdown of the water system in Toledo and southeast Michigan last summer. But the algae has not appeared in what consumers drink.

That water does not pose a health risk, according to a post on the city of Toledo’s website.

“Microcystin has been detected in the intake crib 3 miles out on Lake Erie, but not in drinking water,” the post reads. “Our water is safe to drink.”

The toxin microcystin is a component of the algae that has become an annual occurrence in the lake's western basin during the past decade. Last year produced the worst results. The toxic algae detected in drinking water forced Toledo’s system to shut down for two days in August. More than 400,000 people in Ohio and Michigan’s Monroe County were without water.

Officials have said they are better prepared this year.

“The city's water treatment process is effectively removing the microcystin through its routine process,” Toledo’s website states. “Accelerated treatment is not needed at this time.”

Last month, officials with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and the Michigan Agri-Business Association called for new research into the algae problem. For years, researchers have pointed to phosphorus entering local watersheds through runoff as a main culprit in the creation of microcystin.

“It will take all of us working together to address this critical issue, and that’s why we’re partnering with the Michigan Agri-Business Association and others to call for aggressive research to fully understand the causes of algae blooms and identify new and better policy tools to address them,” said Michigan LCV Deputy Director Jack Schmitt.

Earlier this month, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Michigan said Lake Erie’s algal blooms will likely be larger in 2015.

“While this year’s toxic algae forecast for Lake Erie calls for a bloom larger than 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. “Local weather conditions, such as wind direction and water temperature, also play a role.”

Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced $17.5 million for the Western Lake Erie Basin through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which was created by the 2014 Farm Bill. Through this initiative, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is leading more than 40 local partners in helping farmers implement conservation practices to reduce phosphorus and sediment runoff into Lake Erie.

Since 2009, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has invested more than $57 million in the Lake Erie Basin through Farm Bill programs, helping to ensure our families have safe, reliable drinking water.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.

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