UM set to probe Detroit River’s role in algae ills

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

University of Michigan researchers will investigate what role the Detroit River plays in algae problems that have caused increasing havoc in Lake Erie in the past decade.

Blooms of algae, in some cases toxic, have become common in the lake’s western end in recent years. Last summer, algae fouled an intake pipe for the water system serving Toledo and residents in southeastern Michigan. More than 400,000 residents were without potable drinking water for several days.

The Erb Family Foundation has awarded the university a $3 million grant to find out how much of the Lake Erie problem is caused by the Detroit River.

Algae growth is driven by nutrients that reach the lake. Those nutrients, mainly phosphorus, come from a variety of sources, including large-scale agricultural and livestock operations as well as combined sewer overflows at waste water treatment plants.

Phosphorous from Lake Erie’s western basin contribute to the problem. Roughly 80 percent of the water entering Lake Erie comes through the Detroit River, bringing with it an estimated 40 to 50 percent of the phosphorus.

“Once the dynamics of the Detroit River watershed are better understood, relevant policy options can be developed and targeted to address specific phosphorus sources,” said U-M aquatic ecologist Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute.

Research will include computer modeling of the river’s phosphorus loads that should help determine which sources are responsible for the largest contributions.

“The bi-national policy and management community, including regional (non-governmental organizations) and watershed decision makers, will have a clear understanding of the relative contributions of agricultural and urban sources to Lake Erie nutrient loading,” said Jennifer Read, director of the U-M Water Center and project manager of the new initiative.

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