algae

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

The images of green water in Lake Erie and foul, toxic tap water in Toledo certainly got many of us at least thinking about what's coming out of our taps.

What is Michigan doing to protect our drinking water, the water we get from the Great Lakes system, against cyanobacteria, the toxin that led to a ban on tap water usage in Toledo last month?

Dan Wyant is the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He says there needs to be a comprehensive plan to deal with the problems. 

"We all need to work toward improving water qualities throughout not only the Great Lakes, but also rivers and streams," says Wyant.

Algae (L), Cyanobacterium (R).
Michelle Haun / Michigan Radio

You might have heard.

We've got this new guy strutting around the station telling us to "get it right."

Well, I've had just about enough of this guy. I'm sharing my thoughts about him in this vlog (video blog, for the uninitiated).

I hope you can help me get rid of him.

This guy gets all offended when you call him "algae"

Aug 28, 2014
That's me in the studio at Michigan Radio with ATC host Jennifer White. I think she finally gets it.
Steve Chyrpinski

If you go out in western Lake Erie right now, you'll see us.

We turn the water green. The wakes of the boats -- normally a frothy white -- we turn them a frothy green.

We've been at it for billions of years, and the more you feed us (thank you farmers and the people of metro Detroit), the more we multiply in your warm slow moving waters. But when experts and reporters talk about us, they call us "toxic algae."

Algae? Seriously? Just because we look like plant-scum growing in the water doesn't mean that's what we are.

We are the only kind of bacteria that can release the microsystin toxin into water supplies.

Scientists are starting to call us by the right name. My scientist-friends talked with Rebecca Williams about it today for the Environment Report, thank goodness.

And now I'm trying to work on the reporters and hosts at Michigan Radio. 

See for yourself:

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

Lately, that green slime in the lake has been all over the news after it shut down Toledo’s water supply.

Journalists, city and government officials have been calling that green slime  “blue-green algae”, “toxic algae” or “toxic algal blooms.”

Well, turns out that’s not exactly right.

“That’s just maddening,” said James Bull, a professor of biology and environmental science. He works at Wayne County Community College and Macomb Community College.

He says it’s not accurate to call the green slime that shut down Toledo’s water system “a toxic algal bloom.” 

He wrote to Michigan Radio because we were some of the people using the wrong term.

“It’s wrong because even though these organisms superficially look like algae, I think we ought to understand that these really are a kind of bacteria,” Bull said.

He says scientists used to call this stuff “blue-green algae.” Now they call it “cyanobacteria”. He says calling cyanobacteria "algae" is like calling a dolphin a fish.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The same type of toxic bacteria bloom that threatened Toledo's water is now affecting a small 

Canadian Island on the western end of Lake Erie.

Health officials on Pelee Island have closed the beaches and are warning people not to drink the water.

This is crummy timing, since the Labor Day weekend is usually good business for the island's tourist economy.

Rick Masse is the mayor.

"It's not a really good advertising for our community,” he says.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The recent Toledo water crisis has farmers in Michigan and Ohio on the defensive. They’re pointing to a number of voluntary efforts they’re making to reduce phosphorus runoff to Lake Erie. That runoff is the main food source for the blooms of a kind of cyanobacteria that release a toxin that led to the water shutdown. But farm groups and environmentalists say a new state law in Ohio that will certify the use of fertilizers doesn't go far enough or happen fast enough. 

"Basically, the new law will require that all farmers and certified crop advisors who spread chemical fertilizer on fields go through a certification process where they will learn how to spread the fertilizer in the right place, at the right rate, at the right time of year," says Karen Schaefer, an Ohio reporter who is covering this issue. "And the problem with it is: right now it does not include manure and the law does not go into effect until 2017."

EPA

An environmental group’s report says climate change is already affecting how Americans experience the outdoors.

The National Wildlife Federation’s report “Ticked Off: America’s outdoor experience and climate change” cites this summer’s toxic algal blooms in Western Lake Erie as a prime example of the phenomenon.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - Toledo officials are stressing that the city's water is safe to drink as they continue to monitor for the toxin produced by Lake Erie cyanobacteria blooms  that shut down services two weeks ago to about 400,000 people.

Officials say tests on untreated water coming into a city plant are showing a "strong presence" of the toxin microcystin, but the treated water is safe.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

TOLEDO, Ohio – The findings of a toxin in the drinking water supply of 400,000 people in Ohio and southeastern Michigan a week ago is putting a big spotlight on how it got there.

Scientists and farmers agree that phosphorus from agriculture runoff is feeding the cyanobacteria blooms on Lake Erie linked to the microcystin toxin.

Political leaders are calling for more studies to find out why the blooms are increasing and how to control them. But a number of environmental groups say it's time for strict regulations on the agriculture industry.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A toxin produced by a kind of cyanobacteria contaminated Toledo's water supply over the weekend. It left 400,000 people without drinking water.

Blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) like these happen when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off into Lake Erie from farms and sewage treatment plants.

The International Joint Commission is an independent organization that gives advice to the U.S. and Canada on Great Lakes issues. Earlier this year, the IJC put out a report on how to prevent these blooms.

Raj Bejankiwar, of the Commission's Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, is the lead scientist on that report.

Cyanobacteria blooms were a problem in the '60s and '70s, but then they went away and in the 2000s they started coming back. Bejankiwar says it's because of runoff, mainly from farms.

"We have to stop feeding algae their food, which is phosphorus. We use that extensively in the agriculture land and Toledo is right in the ground zero zone for algae, especially the Maumee River watershed." Bejankiwar adds that in the past few years, heavy storms have washed phosphorus-filled fertilizer from farms. "It ends up in the Maumee River and then finally in Lake Erie."

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of Toledo has lifted a drinking water ban

The ban went into effect early Saturday after tests showed high levels of a toxin in the city’s drinking water. 

The toxin came from a bloom of cyanobacteria, sometimes referred to as blue-green algae,  near the city's water intake.  

Mayor D. Michael Collins says city officials will take the next 48 hours to assess how the emergency was handled.

Gary Fahnenstiel is a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Water Center. He said that these blooms have been around for a while, and perhaps this event can push us toward treatment and mitigation of cyanobacteria blooms.

"This probably caught the public more as a surprise than the scientists or the water quality professionals," Fahnenstiel said. 

* Listen to the full interview above.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred to "algae blooms" in Lake Erie. These are really bacterial blooms (cyanobacteria) that look like algae. The copy has been clarified above.

Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Update Monday, August 4th, 9:40am: Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins says the water ban is lifted in northwest Ohio and drinking water for 400,000 residents is safe. We'll have more details as they come in.

Sunday, August 3, 2014:   More than 400,000 people in Toledo and surrounding areas are without drinking water for a second day, due to a huge cyanobacteria bloom in Lake Erie, where the area gets its water supply.  The cyanobacteria, sometimes referred to as blue-green algae, create a dangerous toxin called microcystin, and exposure to the toxin can cause serious health issues. 

On Sunday afternoon, a boat hastily chartered by the National Wildlife Federation cruises over to see the massive cyanobacteria bloom floating near the city of Toledo.  It's hot, and it's a pretty day, but the water looks oddly bright green.

That's the cyanobacteria bloom. The blooms have been appearing for a couple of decades, but they're getting worse.

Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes says he and other officials have been worried about this for a long time.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - The mayor of Ohio's fourth-largest city says water will be flowing into the Toledo area from all corners of the state to help the 400,000 people who are being warned not to drink the city's water.

Toledo's mayor says water is coming from Akron, Cincinnati and even a prison near Columbus.

City officials issued the warning Saturday after tests revealed the presence of a toxin possibly from cyanobacteria on Lake Erie.

Toledo issues water warning over cyanobacteria toxin

Aug 2, 2014
Water faucet.
jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - Ohio's fourth-largest city has warned residents not to consume its water after tests revealed the presence of a toxin possibly related to cyanobacteria on Lake Erie. Toledo issued the warning early Saturday. It said tests at one treatment plant returned two sample readings for microsystin above the standard for consumption. The city warned against boiling because it will only increase the toxin's concentration.

Lake Improvement Association / Flickr

The western end of Lake Erie, especially near Toledo, is seeing a lot of cyanobacteria this year. It’s been worse, but this year's cyanobacteria bloom is larger than average.

And we’re seeing a kind of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) that can produce a toxin. It can make you sick if you swim in it. It can make pets sick. And it’s a problem for water purification plants and drinking water, too.

Don Scavia is the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. He’s also an aquatic ecologist.

When Lake Erie was considered “dead” back in the 1960s and '70s, these cyanobacteria blooms were a contributing factor.

NOAA.gov

Scientists are working to identify a cyanobacteria bloom near the Maumee River. It's a yearly event that occurs during the warm summer months.

Researchers at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory confirmed that the cyanobacteria bloom has been intensifying over the last week.

Also known as blue-green algae, it can be harmful to the aquatic environment and to people. People shouldn't swim in a bloom- it can cause skin rashes or even severe stomach problems.

Tim Davis is a research biologist with the lab. 

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

The forecast is in: the green goo will be back on Lake Erie this year, but it won’t be as bad as last year.

The big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) happen when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants. Some of these kinds of cyanobacteria produce toxins can harm pets and make the water unsafe to drink.

Rick Stumpf is an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says they’re predicting this year’s bloom in Lake Erie will be significant, but not as bad as it has been in recent years. The blooms reached a record level in 2011.

Pushing to expand the ban on a lawn care ingredient

Apr 29, 2014
Julie Grant

Cyanobacteria blooms continue to plague Lake Erie. Farms and wastewater have gotten a lot of attention for contributing nutrients that create these harmful blooms.

More recently, the spotlight has focused on lawn care. Grass fertilizers can also contain phosphorus that winds up in waterways. Michigan and other states around the Great Lakes have already banned lawn fertilizers that contain phosphorus. Now international regulators and others are pushing Ohio and Pennsylvania to do the same.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

If you lived in Michigan in the 1960s and '70s, you will remember: Lake Erie was on the "critical list." It was once declared dead.

But it got back on the road to health and recovery until the mid-1990s.

That's when the lake started showing signs of distress, with large cyanobacteria blooms (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae blooms) and dead zones showing up again.

Now comes a report from an international agency that keeps a close eye on the health of the Great Lakes, and it is a clarion call to action. Among the agencies contributing to the report is the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.

Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, joined us today.

Listen to the full interview above.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred to "algae blooms" in Lake Erie. These are really bacterial blooms (cyanobacteria) that look like algae. The copy has been clarified above.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Massive blooms of cyanbacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) and dead zones in Lake Erie: These used to be major environmental problems around the most urbanized Great Lake back in the '60s and '70s, but they are problems once again.

Now, an international agency that keeps an eye on the health of the Great Lakes is calling for more action.

The International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian agency, wants sharp cutbacks on phosphorus runoff getting into Lake Erie.

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