algal blooms

Canadians offer plan to battle harmful algae blooms

Feb 28, 2018

Canada and the province of Ontario recently released their plan to combat toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie.  Phosphorus is the primary cause of the blooms that turn parts of the lake green most summers.

The U.S. and Canada hope to reduce phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40 percent, from 2008 levels.  It’s all part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Under that agreement, Canada and the U.S. must develop plans for reducing phosphorus by 2025.  The United States plan – which will summarize five state plans -- is set to be released later this week.

Planes, drone monitor harmful algae in Lake Erie

Oct 17, 2017
Dr. Rafat Ansari

Algae blooms continue to color western Lake Erie a deep green. Now researchers and scientists want to know more about toxins produced by the algae -- and they’re getting help from some unlikely sources.

Thirty thousand feet up in the air, Dr. Rafat Ansari flies his small, two-seater plane over Lake Erie.

He starts west of Cleveland and flies over the lake's islands to Toledo, and then north into Michigan. The round trip flight is about 260 miles.

Along the way, he snaps photos – about 1,500 of them – with three tiny cameras attached to his plane. 

A new partnership has a plan to keep Lake Erie clean. The MI CLEAR group is made up of farmers, conservationists, environmental leaders, and more. Those groups are teaming up with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Jamie Clover Adams is the Director of the Department of Agriculture. She said the multiple perspectives will help improve the lake’s water quality on a variety of fronts.

“This didn’t happen overnight and it’s not gonna be fixed overnight,” she said. “This is a very complex problem that will call for many solutions.”

NASA

Environmental leaders are asking for federal help to fight pollution in Lake Erie. 

The National Wildlife Federation, along with U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Marcy Kaptur, wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to list the western part of the lake as ‘impaired.’ Officials in Michigan already consider that section of the lake to be impaired.

The problem is algal blooms.

Half a million Toledo residents lost their drinking water in the summer of 2014 thanks to thick carpets of bacteria-laden algae on Lake Erie.

It hammered home a warning that scientists have been trying to sell for years: Lake Erie is in serious trouble.

Andy Stuart, president of the Toledo Rotary Club, wants to make sure no one forgets. The club is hosting a Lake Erie crisis conference this weekend.

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."

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."

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.

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.