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Severe and Urgent: Keeping Lake Erie Algae in the Crosshairs

IJC staff
Water Matters - Satellite image of Lake Erie algal bloom, 2014

You may have heard the latest forecast for harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. Scientists are using the word “severe” to describe the threat this summer to the shallowest of the Great Lakes.

Here’s another word that fits: urgent.

Lake Erie is a source of drinking water for cities and communities along its shore, including Toledo, Ohio, which endured a drinking water ban in the summer of 2014 due to cyanotoxin contamination of the supply. The lake has been under attack from excess phosphorus --- nutrients in everything from farm fertilizer and manure to sewage overflows and urban runoff. Those nutrients can fuel algal blooms that produce toxins harmful to humans and animals.

A satellite view of Lake Erie on July 6, 2015. Credit: NOAA/MODIS
A satellite view of Lake Erie on July 6, 2015. Credit: NOAA/MODIS

This latest forecast, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and partners, is yet another sign that the lake needs help. If the most-recent predictions come true, this summer’s bloom would be the second-most severe next to a record-setting bloom in 2011, a significant change from earlier predictions of a relatively mild bloom.

The seasonal forecast for Lake Erie is based on models that translate spring nutrient loading into predicted algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie. The prediction of a severe bloom is due to heavy rains in June that produced record discharge and nutrient loadings from the Maumee River, which runs through Toledo, and northeastern Indiana.

Jeff Reutter on algae forecast

Solving this problem will require meaningful binational action to substantially reduce the phosphorus that fuels this green menace.

Canada, the United States, Ohio, Michigan, Ontario, and Lake Erie cities are actively working to adopt a framework and necessary actions to curb nutrient pollution and restore Lake Erie. The good news is that key scientists and government agencies agree that 40 percent is the amount of phosphorus to the western basin of the lake that needs to be cut. The real challenge remains in how fast phosphorus loadings to Lake Erie can be reduced.   

A recent IJC blog item summed up the issue: Annex 4 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. commits the governments to adopt targets for Lake Erie phosphorus concentrations and loads by February 2016.  

Draft phosphorus reduction targets of 40 percent were released in June by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment Canada. Those numbers are in line with the IJC’s Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) report, issued in February 2014.

Public comment on the EPA and Environment Canada targets is being taken until Aug. 31.

Following a review of comments and adoption of phosphorus targets, the two federal governments will move forward with their domestic action plans. The states of Ohio, Michigan, and the province of Ontario have already declared their intent to accelerate the slashing of algal-fueling pollution, setting targets of 20 percent by 2020 and a total 40 percent reduction by 2025.

In the meantime, let’s hope this summer isn’t a repeat of last year. In August 2014, residents and businesses served by the Toledo, Ohio, water supply were hit by a harmful algal bloom, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to stop drinking tap water for two days. In Canada, the smaller community of Pelee Island was similarly affected.

 Lake Erie's algal bloom off of Toledo, Ohio, as seen from a satellite image on Aug. 1, 2014. Credit: USGS
Lake Erie's algal bloom off of Toledo, Ohio, as seen from a satellite image on Aug. 1, 2014. Credit: USGS

This time around, there are new guidelines for drinking water safety, and officials in Toledo say they’re better prepared to deal with the situation. In May 2015, the EPA issued draft health advisory values for algal toxins based on exposure for 10 days, with more protective standards for children under six years of age, to help utilities better protect the public from algal toxins in drinking water.

Effects including gastroenteritis, and liver and kidney damage have been reported in humans following short-term exposure to cyanotoxins in drinking water. Recreational exposure to cyanobacterial blooms has been reported to lead to allergic reactions, including hay fever-like symptoms; skin rashes; and gastrointestinal distress. Animal studies have shown that long-term adverse effects from cyanotoxins include liver and kidney damage.

The general public also can stay involved in this issue:

  • Sign up for Harmful Algal Bloom bulletins here, and visit NOAA’s experimental HAB Tracker
  • Watch a webinar from Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory on the latest forecast
  • Follow IJC’s Twitter feed dedicated to Lake Erie algal issues @ErieIJC
  • Review and comment on the draft targets from the EPA or Environment Canada, depending on where you live.
IJC staff

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