Drought gives lakefront owners temporary clear water

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

St. Clair Shores — This is more like what Mike Gutow had in mind when he purchased a fixer-upper along the shore of Lake St. Clair in 2011.

David Serwick, 31, begins a trek along the Clinton River on Thursday. Researchers say dry weather will likely lead to a smaller algae bloom than the ones that have plagued the river and Great Lakes in recent years.

The waters near his home are clear and blue — a natural color that is far different than the alarming green of algae and muck that he has lived with for the past five years. The 40-year-old Gutow has learned first-hand the impact that sewage discharges and fertilizer runoff generated by heavy rainstorms can have on a beautiful view.

Masses of muck have annually formed along the seawall at his home, creating a revolting beach of organic matter and garbage he said can include used toilet paper and tampons. It’s been a sign of how Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River to the north are plagued by municipal sewage systems incapable of handling large amounts of rain over a short time.

But Gutow and others who live along the shores of lakes St. Clair and Erie are seeing the benefits of a drought — due largely to the lack of rain in the region since the start of June.

“It’s the most crystal blue water — clear all the way down to the bottom — that I’ve ever seen...,” Gutow said Wednesday before an early Friday thunderstorm. “It’s just an incredible difference. And I will 150 percent put it to the fact that we’ve not had any rain, which has not caused any sewage overflows.”

Roughly 70 miles to the south, Lake Erie is enjoying similar good news.

“The water here is blue and beautiful,” wrote Sandy Bihn, the Ohio-based executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper Inc., in an email response to questions. “Little rain (means little) manure, waste-water and storm water runoff.

“The water is great.”

On Thursday, researchers tracking and forecasting algae growth in the lake predicted that this year’s bloom will likely be smaller than in recent years.

University of Michigan and U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists are predicting a smaller bloom in the lake during July and August, when algae is of greatest concern. In early August 2014, toxic algae made its way into the drinking water system of Toledo, forcing roughly 500,000 residents there and in Southeast Michigan to use bottled water for three days.

There is no assurance that this is the start of a long-term trend. The clarity of the water is not tied to lake levels, which have receded and then rebounded in the past few years.

Algae is created when nutrients — in the form of fertilizers and sewage discharges — are washed into streams and rivers during heavy rainfalls. In this region, much of the rainfall can eventually be carried to Lake Erie. In the lake’s shallow western end, nutrients that settle on the bottom can react to sunlight and form algae. In some cases, the algae created is toxic.

“With a return to average spring discharge, and much lower river flow in June than in the recent years, the western basin should look better,” said Richard Stumpf, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. “However, the phosphorus inputs to the lake are still high enough to support bloom development.”

But even this banner year for clear water has glitches. On Thursday, following brief showers the day before, Macomb County was forced to close two beaches — at Lake St. Clair Metropark and St. Clair Shores’ Memorial Park Beach — due to water sampling that showed higher-than-permissible E. coli levels.

“In Macomb County we haven’t had to close any of our five beaches all summer until today,” Macomb County Health Officer Bill Ridella said Thursday.

And even a smaller algae bloom in Lake Erie is no guarantee that water systems won’t be infiltrated by algae.

“Just remember that in 2014, when the algae resulted in the Do Not Drink (warnings) in early August, the bloom was not big — but rather the wind blew much of the algae over the Toledo intake causing the problem...,” Bihn wrote. “(S)o the lake is great, but there will be algae, and whether or not the 2016 algae will be a problem for drinking water intakes or beaches is unknown.”

Improving the water quality of the lakes has been a priority of the region’s governing bodies, particularly following the drinking water issues in Toledo. A year ago, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario agreed to help reduce by 40 percent the amount of phosphorus affecting Lake Erie.

That process is likely to take time and serious effort to have a demonstrable impact, according to experts.

“(Recent) studies conclude that it will take unprecedented implementation of conservation programs to reach that goal,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist.

Trace Irwin, 7, swims in the cool water of the Clinton River. Algae is created when nutrients wash into streams and rivers during rainfalls.

State Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, is looking to move water improvements along in by hitting communities contributing to the problems in the wallet. Forlini, who also is running in the GOP primary for the 10th Congressional District, said he is crafting legislation that he hopes to introduce in the fall to help make stretches of clear water in the Great Lakes more common by targeting communities that fail to address sewage overflow problems.

The state would be required to assess fees to communities whose wastes end up in local waters that match the cost to fully treat the water — a million gallons of discharge would result in a fee of what it would cost to treat the same amount, he said. When the bills start rising, Forlini said, local governments may decide the most cost-effective move would be to upgrade their sewage systems.

Many still operate combined sewage systems that collect not only waste products, but rainwater in the same pipelines. When large amounts of rainfall swamp the systems, the backups can discharge into local streams and rivers, eventually winding up in the lakes.

“When a marina gets fined because they washed the bottom of a boat the wrong way allowing material to wind up back in the water, that’s considered water pollution,” Forlini said. “They can’t do that, and they get fined.

“Yet we have communities that dump millions of gallons of sewage ...”

Many municipalities use retention ponds as temporary storage for untreated waste until water levels reduce to the point they can be handled. But not all have the retention capacity needed to prevent discharges. And the penalties communities pay for the discharges do little to compel corrective action, Forlini said.

“The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is collecting fees off communities that allow them to dump...,” he said. “It funds a perpetual system of ‘I fine you, you pay me, I allow you to keep doing it.’ ”

He hopes to be able to introduce a bill during the fall session in Lansing.

JLynch@detroitnews.com

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