The 100 page report released on the last week of February indicates that Lake Erie is once again in serious trouble. The international Joint Commission, a United States-Canadian agency, reported that phosphorus is the leading cause of the algae blooms. Phosphorus is found in fertilizer, manure, and waste products from both greenhouses and pig farms. The toxic algae blooms which are causing Lake Erie to die are mostly from phosphorus runoffs.
The algal blooms are not just causing the lake to die. Some of the blooms were so toxic they have not only sickened swimmers but have been responsible for killing dogs. They clot the surface of the lake then decompose. In the summer, the decomposing algae use the oxygen in the lake which creates a dead zone. The dead zone in the deep center of the lake makes it impossible for the deepwater fish to survive there. The shallowest of all the Great Lakes, it is the one most affected by this alga which thrives on light. The blue-green algae plaguing Lake Erie each summer has affected swimming, fishing, and boating.
This is not the first time these infestations have impacted this area. In the late 1960s portions of Lake Erie were biologically dying from toxic algae. In 1972 the United States and Canada jointly signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and spent billions of dollars in order to reduce the phosphorus runoff in order to combat the algae. Some of the steps taken at that time were improvements in sewage treatment operations, changing fertilization practices in farming, and eliminating the phosphorus found in detergents.
For some time, Lake Erie appeared to recover. Since the year 2000, the algae blooms have returned. The recent climate changes have added another dimension to the problem. Rain showers are heavier which allows more phosphorus to be washed into the lake. In addition, the water temperature of the lake itself is warmer than in the past.
In order to reduce the amount of phosphorus bleeding into the lake, officials from IJC are looking to designate the western section of Lake Erie as an area of impaired water. This would allow Michigan and Ohio to restrict the amount of phosphorus that would reach the lake. The steps to reduce those levels may include banning fertilizer, bio-solids, and manure on snow-covered or frozen grounds. Another proposal calls for linking crop insurance to conservation efforts. Measures to protect the lake should be seen in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Ontario.
Fertilizer manufacturers and the agricultural industry will likely oppose efforts to restrict the use of fertilizer or regulate the amount of phosphorus runoff allowed. These groups have already asked federal appeals courts for a prohibition against these types of regulations in the Chesapeake Bay area. The same types of regulations are under consideration for the Lake Erie watershed.
The International Joint Commission’s report indicates that the lake is severely threatened. They are recommending urgent actions and cooperation between governments and private organizations in order to reduce algae blooms significantly by 2022. The reduction or elimination of the phosphorus which spreads into Lake Erie will be a major factor in the elimination of the algae blooms. The elimination of the toxic algae blooms could halt not only the dying of the fish in Lake Erie, but also the dying of the lake itself.
By Dee Mueller
The Washington Post
The New York Times