Friday, July 10, 2015

Lake Erie experts predict near-record toxic algae bloom this summer

Lake Erie experts predict near-record toxic algae bloom this summer; rainy June to blame
Northeast Ohio Birding - The Plain Dealer
McCarty, James

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Experts who track the health of Lake Erie today released their predictions for this summer's toxic algae bloom, and they weren't optimistic. 

Another huge swath of blue-green goo likely will materialize next month, and reach its peak in September, based on one of the soggiest Junes in 85 years and an unprecedented discharge of algae-feeding phosphorus into the lake's western basin. 

"We're looking at a bloom forecast that is definitely worse that 2014, and is potentially the second-most severe bloom in history, behind the record-setting bloom of 2011" said Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer and algae bloom specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

"It's a huge problem for the western basin, but it's not the whole lake," Stumpf said, adding that a spread to Cleveland was unlikely. 

Stumpf made the announcement today from Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory annex on Put-in-Bay. He was joined by scientists and researchers from OSU's Sea Grant Program and Heidelberg University who help to monitor the lake and algae blooms that have flourished there for the past 20 years. 

Last summer's bloom forced the shut-down of Toledo's public drinking-water system after prevailing winds kept the algae concentrated near the city's intake pipes, contaminating the water with toxic microcystis cells the treatment plant was unprepared to handle. 

Stumpf called the Toledo water crisis a phenomenon, explaining how the bloom developed in July "with a rapid intensification beyond the scope of the bloom itself," directly over the water intake pipes. "And it was toxic." 

The water was undrinkable for two days, but fine for the rest of the summer, even though the algae bloom continued well into September. 

This summer's algae bloom could approach the expansive bloom of 2011, and exceed the bloom of 2013, which stretched all the way to Cleveland. But those prospects could change, depending on the amount of rainfall, lake temperature and wind direction, Stumpf said. 

For instance, the 2011 bloom not only contained a huge amount of algae, but it became an "unusual event" after a strong weather front in October pushed the bloom more than 100 miles eastward to Cleveland, where it stalled after the weather turned calm. 

"There is a possibility that could happen again," Stumpf said. "The nutrients are there" this year for a repeat of 2011. 
The algae thrives on phosphorus, which is contained in commercial farm fertilizers, manure and sewage. The torrential rains of June flushed tons of phosphorus from fields of corn and soybeans into creeks and streams, which was carried to the Maumee River and the lake. The larger the phosphorus load, the larger the algae bloom, said Laura Johnson of Heidelberg University. 

Although the toxic algae blooms are found in all of the Great Lakes, they are largest in the western end of Lake Erie, which is shallower and warmer than the rest of the lakes. 

Meanwhile, farmers and the United States and Canada are seeking ways to reduce by 20 percent the amount of phosphorus that gets into the lake over the next five years, and by 40 percent by 2025. 

"This is going to be a heavy bloom year, so we have to make sure another Toledo never happens again," said Dr. Chris Winslow, director of Ohio Sea Grant, citing the phosphorus reduction initiative. "But it's not going to happen overnight." 

Farmers in the western basin have until July 17 to apply for a piece of $17.5 million in federal money, which is earmarked for planting cover crops and trees, installing drainage-control structures, and creating more buffer strips to help reduce algae-forming nutrients in Northwest Ohio streams and rivers. 

Adam Rissien, the Ohio Environment Council's director of agricultural and water policy, said safe drinking water and clean beaches "should not be held hostage by the whims of the weather." 

"Farmers should only apply the amount of nutrients crops actually need to grow, which requires testing the soil and matching application rates to what the crops need," Rissien said.

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