Michigan State University aims to reduce algae blooms in Lake Erie
More than 20 organizations have joined together to help solve a complex situation in Lake Erie: Annual algae blooms. One of the major organizations in this statewide partnership, known as MI CLEAR, includes Michigan State University.
Algae blooms are excessive growths of algae on the surface of the water, which typically occur during warm weather and after heavy rainfall.
“Algae blooms are, in essence, the result of nutrients within the lake, as well as growing conditions within the lake fostering the growth of algae,” said Ron Bates, director of the MSU Extension Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute. Weather patterns also have an important influence on these growths.
Under Bates’ leadership, the MSU Extension’s institute works with local farmers to help them effectively and safely use fertilizers and nutrients on their land and to reduce the possibility of those fertilizers from running off their land and entering Lake Erie by avoiding overfertilization and mass fertilizing once a year.
Another major factor to prevent algae blooms is properly timing the application of fertilizers on farmlands. MSU Extension partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a computer-based tool for farmers that suggests the best times to fertilize that reduces the risk of fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie, based on local weather forecasts generated by NOAA.
“We’re able to take (NOAA weather forecasts) into a web-based platform so that farmers can look at their own fields and look at what the weather forecast is going to be to determine if there’s going to be a rainfall that could cause runoff,” Bates said. If, for example, a farmer plans to fertilize but sees a half-inch of accumulated rainfall in the next 24 hours, it’s encouraged that the farmer waits for drier weather.
Bates said that the cause of algae blooms didn’t happen overnight and therefore won’t be solved overnight. However, partnerships like MI CLEAR are creating the proper communication and connections across the state that will help create solutions.
“There are a lot of people who have connections to the Western Lake Erie Basin who are very sincere and purposeful in trying to improve management practices so we can improve water quality,” Bates said, regarding the MI CLEAR partnership.
“When we brought that group of people together, we all understood we have a common cause to improve water quality in Lake Erie, but also to be able to sustain the livelihood of the people who live in those communities.”
Jeremiah Asher, assistant director of MSU’s Institute of Water Research, also works with the MI CLEAR partnership. Similar to Bates’ team, the Institute of Water Research team works alongside farmers through a program to reduce the amount of fertilizers and nutrients entering Lake Erie, and also offers reimbursements for farmers who participate.
“It’s been very positive,” Asher said, on the farmers’ reception to the program.
One tool is the Sensitive Areas Identification System, which allows landowners and agriculture producers to evaluate their farm or homestead to locate areas on their property sensitive to erosion, runoff and leaching of contaminants. The Great Lakes Water Management System — another tool — allows Asher’s team to go into those specific places in the field and propose different solutions.
Farmers, for example, may be asked not to till certain areas in their fields or to create a buffer zone between an area sensitive to runoff and their field. After farmers implement these new practices, Asher’s team can monitor the reductions of nutrients and sediments in those specific areas in real time.
Asher said the annual algae blooms are a complicated issue that simply can’t be solved by one single practice capable of fixing everything. “There’s a lot of activities focusing on different parts of problems to address them to provide the greatest impact we can.”
Another effort MSU Extension and the MSU Institute of Water Research have been working on is their tile drain research — looking at what’s coming out of tile drains and setting up a wetland treatment plan to filter what comes out of the tile drains before it enters the streams and heads to Lake Erie.
Jeff Dwyer, director of MSU Extension, said MI CLEAR is a multi-faceted partnership with a clear mission drawing on expertise from lots of different areas. He, too, added the algae blooms occurring in Lake Erie are complicated.
“I think what we’re going to see over time is that the research and the experience of implementing various methods for addressing the problem in Western Lake Erie is going to take us in different directions,” Dwyer said, “and I’m quite confident the breadth of experience and research will help us move in any of those directions to address the problem.”
Learn more about the MI CLEAR partnership’s efforts at facebook.com/MICLEARPartnership.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.