Summer algae blooms are not uncommon, especially when the summer heat moves in, but the toxic algae bloom that caused the issuance of a water ban in Toledo is a sign of Lake Erie’s distress.
Lake Erie became very polluted in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the quantity of heavy industry situated in cities on its shores. In the 1970s, patches of the lake were declared dead because of industrial waste as well as sewage from runoff. It was known as the lake that was dying. Lake Erie never ‘died’ but sport fish populations were very low, there were algae in the lake and in general the world’s 12th largest lakes waters were in big trouble.
Lake Erie water is renewed from upstream every 2.6 years, this incredible turn rate for water helped to restore the lake as both U.S. and Canadian officials worked to reduce the algae promoting phosphorus levels. Phosphorus from wastewater plants, laundry detergent and agricultural all helped to reduce phosphorus and recover Lake Erie as a “Great Lake.”
However, the success was short lived. Beginning in 2003 algae blooms were once again plaguing the lake as urbanization and industrial agriculture have produced new and powerful sources of phosphorus runoff. The toxic algae are not restricted to the Great Lakes. Poisonous algae are found in polluted inland lakes from Minnesota to Nebraska to California, and even in the glacial-era kettle ponds of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately it has taken the loss of drinking water for half a million people to force people to see what scientists have been saying for years: Lake Erie is in trouble. State officials told residents to stop using tap water and that boiling the water would only increase the concentration of the toxins.
The man-made three day water ban left residents without water to drink , bath or wash dishes with. The toxin microcystin produced by the toxic blue-green algae causes health problems such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, liver inflammation and pneumonia. When it comes in contact with skin it can cause rashes, hives and even blisters. The toxin has been known to cause death in pets and wildlife.
Scientists in Ohio and elsewhere who study Lake Erie’s algae problems say the crisis is solvable. The first step is limiting the amount of phosphorus that reaches the lake. Once that happens, the lake will take care of itself with its fast water cycling system.
Action is needed and it’s needed now. Money has been given to create wetlands and teach farmers ways to reduce fertilizer use and runoff. More money will be used to encouraged (should be required) to use best management practices when applying fertilizer. A Nutrient Reduction Strategy paper issued last year cites demonstration projects, voluntary phosphorus reduction goals and watershed plans, but makes no mention of enforceable limits on pollution. Obviously the voluntary reduction isn’t working as Lake Erie slowly collapses.