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Like a Shark: Algae Eats Money in Lake Erie

IJC staff
Water Matters - Nurse Shark

If Lake Erie algae was a storm, you might call it a “Sharknado.”

The Lake Erie algae season in 2015 was the worst ever recorded. Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad for people as in 2014, when hundreds of thousands of Toledo, Ohio-area residents lost access to clean drinking water for three days. A similar situation occurred in 2014 on Pelee Island, located on the lake in Ontario, Canada.

Lake Erie’s version of the Sharknado is excess algae, fed by phosphorus that runs off of urban and agricultural land. The nutrients fuel Harmful Algal Blooms, which can be toxic to humans and animals.

What’s the economic cost of Lake Erie Harmful Algal Blooms, also called HABs? That’s one question the IJC sought to answer in its latest report on the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP). In other words, what’s the value of avoiding the harm of future Harmful Algal Blooms, from ecosystem health to human activities like recreation and commercial fishing?

We released our LEEP report in February 2014, urging governments to take a bite out of algal blooms by setting phosphorus reduction targets, reducing phosphorus loads from agricultural and urban sources, and strengthening monitoring and research.

Nearly two years later, we’re releasing a consultant’s report titled “Economic Benefits of Reducing Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie.”

Cover of IJC report, Economic Benefits of Reducing Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie.

The report looked at algal blooms in 2011 (at the time, the largest ever recorded) and 2014. Effects to recreation, water withdrawals, tourism, and property values were studied.

Scenarios developed for the report indicate nearly $71 (U.S.) million in lost economic benefits from the 2011 event, and an additional $65 million in lost benefits from the 2014 event. Over 30 years, the value of lost benefits is estimated at more than $1.3 billion based on the 2014 event. 

Overall, the total economic impact from the 2011 bloom was based on estimates of $16 million for diminished property values, $20 million for lost tourism revenue, $31 million for lost recreational opportunities, and $4 million for water treatment. For 2014, the estimate was slightly lower, at $65 million. 

A Lake Erie algal bloom in August 2011, along the southeast Lake Erie shore of Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Environment Canada recently studied the same economic issue in a report called “Algal Blooms: Estimating Costs to the Lake Erie Basin Economy.” While the IJC study took in the Canadian and U.S. portions of western Lake Erie, the Environment Canada analysis was restricted to the Canadian portion of the lake, such as the shores of Leamington, Ontario, where the IJC held public meetings on LEEP in 2014.

The Canadian study estimated annual costs associated with damages arising from three scenarios to be about $142 million for a “stable lake”, $272 million for “business as usual”, and $126 million for “policy intervention.”

In other words, taking actions to reduce algal blooms could be worth about $146 million, based on the Environment Canada study. That’s in Canadian dollars, compared to U.S. dollars in the IJC report, which again estimates the annual cost of a reoccurrence at about $71 million for 2011 and $65 million for 2014.

Progress has flowed in line with recommendations from our February 2014 LEEP report.

Draft phosphorus reduction targets of 40 percent were released for public comment in June by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada, and the agencies are due to move forward with domestic action plans to achieve the targets.

The states of Ohio, Michigan, and the province of Ontario also have 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.

This consultant’s report reinforces tens of millions of reasons to invest in solutions to the ongoing algal problem in Lake Erie, and other parts of the Great Lakes. If we don’t, this green menace will come back to haunt us again and again, like a bad movie.

An algae-related sign at Headlands State Park in Mentor, Ohio, in September 2015. Credit: Phil Kalina 
IJC staff

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