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Lawmakers mull Lake Erie algal bloom crisis

Tom Jackson • Dec 10, 2011 at 3:18 PM

While the toxic algae in Lake Erie is a growing problem, decisive action to battle the bloom can still bring positive results quickly, a prominent Ohio scientist told state officials.

Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant program and Stone Laboratory near Put-in-Bay, was among the top witnesses Friday at the Ohio House’s agriculture and natural resources committee hearing.

The meeting, held at the Lake Erie Shores and Islands West welcome center in Ottawa County, drew committee members Rep. Dennis Murray, D-Sandusky; Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont; Rep.

Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent; and Rep. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green.

Similar problems in the last few decades suggest the algal bloom crisis can be fixed, Reutter said.

To drive home his point, he showed the lawmakers a photograph from 1971, in which he is seen with his hand in lake water, covered with green slime. 

He said the lake had a terrible algal bloom crisis that year, which was fed by an excess of phosphorus.

The crisis was reversed thanks to improvements in municipal sewage treatment systems and better practices by farmers.

Lake Erie then became the best example for recovery of an ecosystem, he said.

Since 1995, however, conditions in the lake have worsened, a problem once again driven by an overabundance of phosphorus.

If the systems causing the problem can be addressed — reducing phosphorus pollution, for instance — Lake Erie would improve almost immediately, Reutter said.

But there may be added challenges this time around.

Climate change is making the bloom worse, Reutter said. Rising temperatures make the lake water warmer, encouraging algae growth.

Severe storms occur more often, too, increasing runoff from agricultural land. Storm runoff events are up 67 percent from 1960 to 2010, Reutter said.

New research also suggests that drainage tiles — subsurface pipes that remove excess water from farmland to improve crop production — contribute to the phosphorus problem. Reutter called for a moratorium on tiling.

Two members of Gov. John Kasich’s cabinet spoke at the hearing and said the governor backs efforts to rescue Lake Erie from the algal bloom.

Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said he spoke to the governor Thursday morning.

“This is No. 1 on our radar screen,” Zehringer said. “We are committed to solving these issues.”

Ohio EPA director Scott Nally said officials must work with the agricultural community, municipalities and industry leaders to tackle the problems contributing to the algal bloom.     

Farmers can help by learning and following the “4R” rules for applying fertilizer: using the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, and with the right placement.

Farmers should also avoid applying fertilizer to frozen ground, Zehringer said.

But even as agriculture has some role in causing this algal bloom, farmers showed in the 1970s that they were willing to help restore the lake.

Other problems may prove more difficult to address.

Noting the city of Detroit’s financial problems, Murray asked Nally what can be done to deal with the large amount of waste that Detroit’s inadequate wastewater treatment plant dumps into the lake.

Nally said a federal judge is “turning the screws” and trying to force Detroit to do a better job, but progress is being hampered by the city’s lack of money.

Sandy Bihn, of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, said she believes Ohio should get involved in the renewal next year of Detroit’s discharge permit.

“While the Ohio cities of Toledo, Sandusky, Cleveland and others are required to reduce and treat overflows, Detroit should be required to do the same,” she said.

Find out what local tourism officials are saying about the problem in Saturday's Register.

Video credit: Dave Byknish

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