Lake Erie could see severe algae bloom

Sarah Rahal, and Candice Williams
The Detroit News
View Comments

Research projections suggest Lake Erie’s algae bloom severity could be higher than last year but not as severe as 2015 after wet weather in May led to large phosphorus loads.

Rainfall and temperatures over the next few weeks will determine the potential bloom severity, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Center for Water Quality Research. March and April had below average discharge and phosphorus loads into Lake Erie, the report said, and wet weather in May led to large phosphorus loads and average loads for June but thunderstorms at the end of June “may have increased the load somewhat.”

Loading season is measured from March to July, according to the report.

Jordan Dale at the National Weather Service in White Lake Township said the climate prediction center has forecast July precipitation to be close to the 3.37-inch average.

“We did see more precipitation in May,” Dale said. The average temperature was 0.7 degrees above average and precipitation was 1.01 inches above average, he said.

Bloom predictions are less than what occurred in 2015, when Lake Erie saw the most severe blooms in recent history.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said there have been initial steps to reduce phosphorus after toxins from algae contaminated the drinking water supply for 400,000 people in Ohio and southeast Michigan in 2014, including 30,000 residents in Monroe. The toxic blooms led to a three-day ban on drinking water from Lake Erie after toxins were detected in East Toledo and Point Place.

“We’re not seeing a ton of progress yet. All signs are pointing toward a relatively severe level of bloom this year,” Brammeier said.

Brammeier said there has to be more of a commitment to reduce phosphorus levels.

“Whether you have a severe toxic bloom and whether you see an impact on the water supply depends on where that bloom is located,” he said. “We don’t want to rely on the winds and waves. We like to keep the level of phosphorus down.”

There are two big effects of having high levels of phosphorus in Lake Erie, Brammeier said. One is drinking water for cities such as Toledo, Sandusky and further east to Cleveland. The other is the economic impact on communities in northern Ohio.

Harmful algal blooms are a threat to drinking water and wildlife. It appears as a green fluorescent scum on beaches and islands.

“It gets overrun with toxic algae,” Brammeier said. “It’s gross and drives visitors away. You get this dual threat of access to drinking water and loss of dollars the lack of tourism has on Lake Erie. That’s what communities are dealing with every summer.”

Brammeier said the amount of rain in the spring can affect pollution in the lake.

“We’re still sort of operating at the mercy of the weather which is not a smart way to plan,” he said.

Ohio’s regulators have recently ramped up its efforts to cut down on algae. It and neighboring states are encouraging farmers to take steps to prevent manure and fertilizers from flowing into the lake’s tributaries and reducing overflows from sewage treatment plants.

Last week, the Ohio Lake Erie Commission was charged with reducing phosphorus into western Lake Erie by 40 percent over 10 years. Michigan and Ontario have pledged to follow suit to improve water quality.

In 2016, just over 40 percent of the farmland in the western Lake Erie region accounts for nearly 80 percent of the phosphorus that flows into the lake through the Maumee River, said Jeff Reutter, a former director of the Sea Grant Program, who has studied the lake for decades.

The NOAA/National Center for Water Quality Research report found that cumulative total loads for bioavailable phosphorus, which lends to rapid algal growth, for the Maumee at the Ohio city of Waterville, “is highly likely to be lower than either 2011 or 2015. 2015 saw the highest load in five years beginning in 2011, the report showed.

Public officials and scientists say a different way is needed to monitor toxins from algae blooms so they can be detected quicker, before they spread through the water system.

View Comments