Lake Erie algae outlook: Better than 2019, worse than '18

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Lake Erie's annual hazardous algae bloom has appeared in low concentrations in recent days on the Maumee River in downtown Toledo and, over the past week, spread north along the western shore towards Michigan and the lakefront of Erie and LaSalle.

Officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday the amount of green to greenish-blue muck will be smaller this season than last summer, but larger than the relatively moderate bloom of 2018.

In this Sept. 15, 2017, file photo, algae floats on the surface of Lake Erie's Maumee Bay in Oregon, Ohio.

“What we are forecasting for this year is a severity of 4.5 within a possible range of 4 to 5.5," said Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer for NOAA. “Last year, we had a severity of 7.3.

“So this really puts us between 2018 (a relatively modest bloom), and 2019.”

The officials and scientists also said that despite a number of remedial programs enacted in recent years, the amount of phosphorus flowing from the large Maumee River watershed into the southwest corner of Lake Erie, at Toledo, is bigger than last year.

It is also in excess of targets set by shoreline states, Ontario, and the U.S. government.

Much of that increase is related to increased rainfall, especially significant storms in May, according to the federal officials and scientists working for NOAA. And, they said, the spring of 2020 allowed more tilling and fertilizing of farmland, leaving more material to be carried into the lake.

After large storms in May, the amount of water flowing from the Maumee River, where it absorbs runoff from fertilized farms, golf courses and residences throughout southern Michigan and Ohio, is larger than last year.

“Since the early 2000s, we have seen this continuous upward trend in flow, because we’ve has some very intense rain events and rainy years,” said Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research.

The maximum level of flow anticipated has been exceed four times since 2010, Johnson said. It was exceeded only once from 2000 to 2010, she said.

That is putting more phosphorus into the water and will likely do so as more moisture gathers in the atmosphere with the warming of the planet, until remedial efforts have an impact, officials and scientists said.

The forecast and results of recent research were announced at a virtual conference attended by more than 300 government officials, scientists, media and the public, sponsored by the Stone Lab and Ohio Sea Grant at Ohio State University.

NOAA and other government officials said they believe that once the phosphorus runoff targets are met, the blooms will eventually shrink, even with heavier rains. 

“Harmful algae blooms pose a significant risk to human health, the environment and the economy,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, one of three members of Congress who attended the session.

“While early projections show the 2020 bloom in Lake Erie may be smaller than last year, the risks are always there, and they remain high. “And with lake levels rising, the water’s never been higher,” Dingell said. “And the temperatures are warming; there’s climate change. These risks aren’t going away. They’re going to endure into the future.”

NOAA'S annual prediction is a severity index based on the size of the bloom over a sustained period.

In 2019, the prediction was 7.5.

The worst blooms in recent years were 10 in 2011 and 10.5 in 2015.

The size and location of the bloom varies, sometimes considerably, through summer and early fall. Winds are a key factor.

NOAA provides information on the location and density of the hazardous algae bloom online, with updates twice per seek. Increasingly, boaters and anglers say they use the sites to plan recreational activity.

Officials said that while the coronavirus had some impact on the collection of data for the annual survey and forecast, it did not substantially affect the work. But they said, budget cuts forced by sharp changes in government priorities in the months ahead may have significant impacts on further study and remedies.

While farmers and golf course operators are urged to get fertilizers and manure deep into soil to discourage runoff, for example, the equipment needed to do so is both expensive and in spare supply.

Kris Swartz, a supervisor in the Wood Soil and Water Conservation District in northwest Ohio and a fifth-generation farmer in the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg, said about 2,000 farmers, representing 43% of the cropland in the Maumee River watershed, have signed up to participate in efforts like H2Ohio and the Ohio Agricultural Conservation Initiative.

H2Ohio is Gov. Mike DeWine’s initiative to focus on reducing phosphorus, creating wetlands, addressing failing septic systems and preventing lead contamination.

The Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative is a partnership of agriculture, conservation, environment and research groups working to improve water quality and increase best management practices on farms.

After the conference, some environmental groups said the governors of Ohio and Michigan and the premier of Ontario are failing to keep pledges to clean up the mess.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes, Freshwater Future, the Michigan Environmental Council and the Ohio Environmental Council said the three governments set a goal of reducing nutrient pollution by 40% by 2025, with 2020 as a halfway interim goal of 20%.

“Today’s results show very plainly that little progress is being made, and we are very far off from achieving this goal,” the groups said in a statement.

They called for improved planning and providing “a blueprint that the public can use to hold decision-makers accountable, not just a long list of best management practices.”

“Regardless of whether the severity is measured as a 6 or 7.5, when the algal blooms in western Lake Erie can be seen from space, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that this is becoming a crisis,” said Crystal Davis, director of policy at the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“Efforts are not only falling short, we also don’t have a clear accounting of how or where we are in reaching the 20% reduction goal, or how we will get to the 40% reduction goal.”