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Toxic algae and Lake Erie

Jul 8, 2015

There’s an old saying that we ought to take care of the environment we have, since we can’t get another. This is perhaps especially true of our water.

We’re all lucky enough to live on the Great Lakes, which hold most of the fresh water in the world. You’d think taking care of them would be a top priority, but too often it’s not.

 We’ve had various kinds of pollution scares in the past, and the lakes are now over run with invasive species that clog pipes and frustrate fishermen. We’re still awaiting, and not doing enough to prevent, a dreaded invasion by Asian carp.

But last summer something new and frightening happened. For two days in August, residents of Toledo, Ohio were told their water was unsafe to drink or even use to bathe.

It had been contaminated by poisonous microcystin toxins generated by huge algae blooms in Western Lake Erie. This wasn’t the first time the lake had been stricken by this. The year before, a small water treatment plant elsewhere in Ohio had been temporarily shut down, though that received little notice at the time.

But this was a fairly major city whose safe water supply had been cut off. Fortunately, the crisis soon passed. The late Mike Collins, then Toledo’s mayor, assured me that everything was being done to make sure the city would be ready next time.

However, now a new summer is upon us. I do a weekly public affairs program on WGTE-TV in Northwest Ohio, and yesterday, I talked with two of the nation’s leading experts on the problem – Dr. Jeff Reutter, who has studied Lake Erie from Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, and Dr. Richard Stumpf, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Every year, Stumpf calculates the federal government’s annual Western Lake Erie algae forecast, which will be released tomorrow.

While I don’t know exactly what that forecast will be, it seemed clear from talking to both men that there may be even more of a problem this year than last, given the heavy rains last month. By the way, we know the causes of the problem – fertilizer.

Farmers heavily fertilize their fields in an effort to maximize their crops. In too many cases, they are now doing so in the winter. The fertilizer, which is filled with phosphorous, just sits on the frozen ground, and in the winter, it gets washed into the water system.

When it reaches Lake Erie, it causes an algae explosion. The good news is that water treatment facilities do seem in much better shape this year. The bad news is that not enough is being done about the root cause of the problem. Tom Henry, an award-winning environmental writer with the Toledo Blade, told me too many farmers are still using too much fertilizer.

This includes some in Michigan, and we’d be stupid to think this isn’t a problem that could potentially affect us. Lake Erie has been given up for dead before; forty years ago, there was a different algae problem caused mainly by human sewage.

Governments cleaned that up. The scientists told me they thought the lake could again be saved if we make the right policy choices. Let’s just hope that we don’t do so too late.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.