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The healing of Lake Erie Featured

Port Clinton shoreline, September, 2011. Photo by Brenda Culler, ODNR. Port Clinton shoreline, September, 2011. Photo by Brenda Culler, ODNR.

On Friday, April 12, the National Wildlife Federation hosted a Forum on Lake Erie, held at the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Welcome Center in Port Clinton. Presenters were Frank Szollosi of National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Regional office in Ann Arbor; Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, University of Toledo scientist with the Lake Erie Center; and Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Water Keeper.

The importance of Lake Erie

Lake Erie is facing a new set of challenges, which can be addressed if groups at all levels continue to work together.  Your actions can help.

This was the take-home message from a Lake Erie Forum hosted by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) on Friday April 12 at the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Welcome Center in Port Clinton.

NWF Regional Outreach Coordinator Frank Szollosi began the forum with a discussion of the NWF report, “Wildlife in a Warming World: Confronting the Climate Crisis” and focused on the Great Lakes. The NWF report discusses the importance of the Great Lakes, which contain 95 percent of the fresh surface water in the United States and 20 percent in the world. The report outlines how the changing climate has resulted in an increased number of heavy rainfall events, less ice cover and warming lake water. Elements that, when combined, are impacting the ecological health of Lake Erie. 

As pointed out by presenter Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper, Lake Erie has approximately 2 percent of the water in the Great Lakes and 50 percent of the fish. Since it is the shallowest Great Lake and smallest by volume, Lake Erie is the “Canary of the Lakes,” becoming “sick” more quickly than the others but also capable of healing more quickly as was evidenced in the 1970s, she said. 

Szollosi emphasized that, “there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but not a social consensus.” He said it is  the desire of the NWF to build consensus about the changing climate’s impact on natural resources and that people can take action to slow the rate of change.  

“If we do nothing to reduce carbon pollution, by 2100 we could see a 7-11 degree rise in temperature, Szollosi said. “Warmer waters are good for algae blooms and invasive species such as sea lampreys and Asian carp, but not good for trout and yellow perch. More bass, less walleye.” 

According to NWR statistics, Ohio has a half million hunters and 1.3 million anglers. Ohio hunters are estimated to annually bring more than 20,000 jobs and more than $850 million in retail sales to the Buckeye state. Ohio anglers are estimated to bring over 26,000 jobs and $1.9 billion in retail sales. This does not include the expenditures by pleasure boaters. 

Every person who lives in Ottawa County, whether or not they go on or near the water, feels Lake Erie’s economic impact. The NWF’s report shows that climate change could impact Ohioans financially, especially along Lake Erie where tourism to the region generated business sales of $11.5 billion in 2009 according to Ohio’s Office of Tourism. But that’s not all. 

The Green Menace

Dr. Thomas Bridgeman grew up in the Marblehead area and has lived close to Lake Erie his whole life. Bridgeman is now a scientist with the University of Toledo Lake Erie Center at Maumee Bay, and was one of the first to observe and study the latest round of harmful algae blooms.

Bridgeman’s discussion of “The Green Menace—Harmful Algae in Lake Erie” outlined the past and present health of the Lake and potential scenarios for its future. Because lakes all over the world are experiencing similar issues as Lake Erie – excessive nutrient loadings leading to algal blooms– what researchers learn on how to control nutrient loadings from the Lake Erie Watershed could have global significance as successful techniques are shared.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center within the National Weather Service are predicting that this spring will be wetter and warmer than average for the majority of the Great Lakes region. This could lead to increased nutrient and sediment runoff and set up the potential for another harmful algae bloom late this summer. 

According to Bridgeman, algae are growing in Lake Erie all year long- even below the ice surface when Lake Erie freezes. The good algae, diatoms, are blooming now and serve as food for fish, he said. The “bad” algae are actually single-celled photosynthesizing cyanobacteria that occur naturally in most surface waters. However, when excess phosphorus is present in lakes and streams, the cyanobacteria produce large blooms (excessive growth) and the blooms may produce toxins. 

Types of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie include Lyngbya wollei which grows on the bottom of the lake and at times peels off and floats to the surface in mats which can wash up and foul the shore, and Microcystis aeruginosa which grows in the water column and can float to the surface in a paint-like scum. Microcystis blooms can produce the toxin microcystin. It and other cyanobacteria-produced toxins are harmful to people, pets and livestock as the toxins can attack the liver, the nervous system, irritate the skin, cause rashes, violent sickness and even death. In fish, toxins can accumulate in the gut and liver. According to the Ohio EPA, algal toxins cannot be seen, smelled or tasted and can persist well after the disappearance of an algae bloom. Algal toxins are not always present in algal blooms, but when they are, they are usually most concentrated in scums.

Blooms also cause problems for water treatment facilities, as the cyanobacteria get sucked into water intake pipes and can clog equipment. More treatment is also required to remove the HAB from the water which costs communities, and ultimately the residents who consume the water, more money. 

Dr. Bridgeman said an additional problem is that the season for blooms of harmful algae is getting longer. 

The “P” Problem

Phosphorus is an essential element for plant life and is used by both green and blue-green algae. However, blue-green algae are not limited by other nutrients whereas green algae are limited. This means that blue-green algae can continue to grow when there is no more nitrogen in the water, crowding out the remaining green algae. 

According to the U.S. EPA, during the late-1960s when water quality issues in the Great Lakes became a concern, Canadian and American regulatory agencies agreed that limiting phosphorus loads was the key to controlling excessive algal growth and that a coordinated lake-wide approach was necessary to deal with the phosphorus issue. 

In 1972, the governments of Canada and the United States signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) to protect and restore the waters of the Great Lakes. A specific objective for the GLWQA was to reduce phosphorus loadings to Lake Erie to control the nuisance algae growth.

Open lake phosphorus concentrations declined due to the both countries’ efforts and the HABs in Lake Erie were greatly reduced.  

However, since the late 1990s, the amount of phosphorus in Lake Erie has gradually increased. According to Bridgeman, science shows that the type of phosphorus that has increased is the dissolved phosphorus. He used the example of when a person applies granular fertilizer to a lawn, it gradually feeds the lawn. Sprayed-on liquid fertilizer yields more immediate results. Likewise, when the liquid fertilizer gets in the water it feeds algae much more quickly leading to blooms.

No-till farming, while environmentally beneficial at reducing the amount of sediment that flows off the land into the water, has the negative effect of leaving fertilizer sitting on top of the ground, making it much more prone to run-off. Application of fertilizer to frozen ground is particularly problematic.


Frank Szollosi of National Wildlife Federation Regional office in Ann Arbor; Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper; Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, University of Toledo Lake Erie Center

Taking Action

On April 11, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) announced that significant progress is being made toward the goal of reducing the amount of phosphorus that is running off the ground and into Lake Erie. In June 2012, $3 million was appropriate by the state for the Healthy Lake Erie Fund. The fund has enabled conservation practices to be applied to more than 35,000 new acres of farmland in the Western Lake Erie Basin Watershed in less than a year, helping reduce the nutrient loadings in Lake Erie. 

“I am proud to see farmers taking advantage of resources that will protect one of Ohio’s greatest natural resources, Lake Erie,” said ODNR Director James Zehringer. “The money from the Healthy Lake Erie Fund is being used to reduce nutrients in Ohio’s waterways from agricultural sources, and many producers are realizing these practices still result in viable and even more profitable farming operations.”

ODNR is working closely with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Agriculture on addressing the excessive nutrients loadings. Their efforts include encouraging adoption of the “4R” Program when for nutrient stewardship. The 4R Program stands for using the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place to achieve crop goals and limit nutrient runoff into waterways. 

Beneficial guidelines set forth in the 4R Program are supported by evolving scientific findings. Dr. Bridgeman said that the timing of the phosphorus flow into Lake Erie is a critical factor in whether or not blooms will occur, as is the number and timing of heavy storm events. In other words, what happens during the spring (April through June) is what impacts the size of the bloom in the fall (August through October). 

Bihn reinforced Bridgeman’s findings and listed other concerns she has that may be contributing to the ailing lake including:

  • Detroit’s malfunctioning wastewater treatment plant, contributing 5 percent of the phosphorus loading for Lake Erie
  • Factory farming, causing heavy load of overflows of nutrient-dense manure 
  • Toledo shipping channel’s heavy dredging and open lake dumping
  • Superstorm Sandy, necessitating more dredging
  • Longer growing season, meaning the potential use of more fertilizer 
  • The cessation of monitoring of contaminants in Lake Erie in the 1980s
  • Improved agricultural drainage resulting in faster movement of nutrients to the lake
  • Low lake levels—less water, more concentration of nutrients

Bihn noted that in Ohio though the land has many advocates, the lake has few. 

Solutions

Dr. Bridgeman’s conclusion is that, “If we find a phosphorus loading solution, Lake Erie can recover quickly. Water moves through it in two years.”

With the help of these experts and the combined efforts and resolve of governments, agencies, sportsmen and citizens, and with some help from Mother Nature, Lake Erie can heal.

Six things we can do: suggestions from the Forum

  1. Farmers and homeowners can implement the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program.
  2. Plant less grass and more deep-rooted plants and shrubs, especially native species, and especially in areas along streams, creating buffer zones. Deeper roots absorb more water.  Wild Ones in Toledo, www.wildones.org, and Mulberry Creek Herb Farm in Huron, www.mulberrycreek.com can provide information on native plants.
  3. Take photos of algae blooms, fish die offs, and of the good things, like returning wildlife and cleaner water, and send them to contacts listed on the websites listed below. www.ohioalgaeinfo.com has an online form for reporting algae blooms and posts HAB advisories.
  4. Choose to buy local, better for the economy and for the environment.
  5. Attend the Lake Erie Improvement Association (LEIA) meetings hosted by Bihn at the Welcome Center the second Wednesday of each month at 8:30 a.m. The LEIA also focuses on the economic health of the Lake Erie region. 
  6. Encourage local government officials to develop plans for adapting to climate change. Support efforts for increasing funding for local initiatives/regulations that seek to improve water quality and reduce nutrient runoff. This includes supporting increased funding for local health departments inspection and correct problems with public and home sewage treatment systems.

For more information:
www.nwf.org/greatlakes
www.utoledo.edu/nsm
www.lakeeriewaterkeeper.org
www.ohiodnr.gov
www.lakeerieimprovement.org

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