MI CLEAR brings together diverse groups to reduce algae blooms in Lake Erie
Experts agree on the need to prevent algae blooms, excessive growths of algae on the surface of the water, which typically occur during warm weather and after heavy rainfall.
The Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie through Action and Research (MI CLEAR) partnership formed last summer to improve and maintain the lake’s water quality. It includes 20 organizations, companies and universities that aim to better inform Michigan residents about ongoing science- and research-based activities centered around care for the health of Lake Erie.
One of the many groups participating is Ducks Unlimited, the world’s largest wetlands and waterfowl conservation organization.
Since Ducks Unlimited was founded, the organization has completed over 14 million acres of conservation in North America and over 71,000 acres in Michigan alone. In Michigan, the conservation group not only protects wetland habitats for the breeding, wintering and migration of ducks and geese across the Great Lakes region, it also directly contributes to improving the water quality of the Great Lakes and reducing algae blooms.
How algae blooms impact environments for ducks
“Algae blooms really impact duck’s food sources,” said Chris Sebastian, public affairs coordinator for Ducks Unlimited. When algae blooms occur in the Western Lake Erie Basin, the food sources that ducks and geese need for survival are greatly reduced and sometimes eliminated. This includes plant life and invertebrates like mussels and insects.
This happens because algae blooms create dead zones, which are areas in the lake where aquatic life and plants cannot survive, due to low oxygen levels in the water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This lack of oxygen is generally caused by an excessive amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, which causes an overgrowth of algae. It’s primarily a problem for lakes and coastal waters.
Weather is another factor in algae blooms. More rainfall during the spring and summer can create excessive algae growth, because the rain carries pollutants and phosphorus into Lake Erie. But wetlands can counter this problem. Along with serving as breeding and migration habitats for waterfowl, wetlands serve as nature’s filtration system, Sebastian said. Their conservation is key in a bigger solution.
“The wetlands here are really important for ducks and geese, but they’re also really important, obviously, for water quality,” he said. “For the Great Lakes, wetlands absorb harmful impurities, pollutants and sediments that come off our land when it rains.”
Without wetlands, rain hits the ground and washes the excessive nutrients and impurities into canals and ditches that feed directly into Lake Erie. With wetlands, however, rainwater that contains excessive nutrients and impurities doesn’t rush directly into the lake and instead slows down and settles at the bottom of the wetlands. The plants that grow in these habitats remove and filter out all the pollutants and junk before it reaches the lake.
“The large algae blooms we see in Lake Erie could be hugely reduced if we had more wetlands, Sebastian said: “The problem is we don’t have those safeguards anymore — those buffer zones — that keep (nutrients and impurities) out of Lake Erie.”
A loss of wetlands leads to conservation efforts
Unfortunately, Southeastern Michigan and Northeastern Ohio have become highly developed over the years. “Between farming, subdivision building and industrial development, we’ve lost almost all the wetlands in this area,” Sebastian said. Ducks Unlimited, however, has been working with public and private landowners to restore and conserve wetland habitats. The group has invested about $227 million to conserve over 655,000 acres of wetlands in the Great Lakes region, which serves as a water source for over 40 million people.
Sebastian said the MI CLEAR partnership is beneficial because it’s providing another layer of communication and teamwork to all the groups trying to prevent algae blooms.
“We all have our areas of expertise and it only makes sense to collaborate and share what we’ve learned out in the field to try to determine the best way to keep this drinking water and recreational water clean for millions of people,” he said. “We believe that there needs to be teamwork and cooperation to clean this up. We can’t get it back to where it used to be necessarily, because of human development, but we can go a long way toward making it a healthier habitat for ducks and for people.”
How can you help improve the water quality of the Western Lake Erie Basin?
Don’t know much about the causes of algae blooms in Michigan’s waterways, but wish you were better informed, especially about efforts you can take to help improve the water quality of the Western Lake Erie Basin?
You’re not alone.
Concern about algae blooms in the Great Lakes is high throughout the state, but knowledge on the topic is often low and Michigan residents are looking to state leaders to find solutions that will improve water quality in Lake Erie, according to a recent survey by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).
Statewide, only one-in-five people (19%) say they know “quite a lot” about algae blooms and almost half say they know “nothing at all” (49%) about the topic, results from the MDARD survey show.
“The conclusion is clear: We need to improve public understanding about all the influences impacting water quality in the Great Lakes, as well as to better explain the ecological complexities and challenges that Lake Erie poses,” said MDARD Director Gordon Wenk.
When asked how likely a variety of sources were to cause algae blooms or make them worse, respondents said:
- 66% – industrial waste
- 5% – residential lawn fertilizers
- 53% – water sewage treatment plants
- 51% – crop farm fertilizers
- 50% – golf course fertilizers
- 43% – animal farm waste
- 40% – climate change
- 39% – faulty residential septic tanks
- 35% – invasive aquatic animals, such as mussels
The survey findings reflect the public’s understanding that it’s important everyone does their part to keep the Great Lakes clean. Additionally, a large-scale partnership dedicated to Lake Erie exemplifies how state leaders are moving to address the algae bloom challenge in the six-county region comprising Michigan’s share of the Western Lake Erie Basin: Wayne, Monroe, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Jackson counties.
Ready to get involved, too? To learn more about efforts for algae bloom reduction in Lake Erie, visit facebook.com/MIClearPartnership.