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Published: Saturday, 9/3/2011

The algae menace

Gov. John Kasich insists he is “completely, totally, 100 percent committed” to a clean and healthy Lake Erie. He can redeem that commitment, and promote economic growth in Ohio, by developing and executing an aggressive plan to combat the lake’s worsening algae problem.

Satellite photos show microcystis — a potentially deadly form of algae that has bloomed annually here since 1995 — spreading across Lake Erie’s western basin in greater abundance than in previous years and ahead of schedule. The Maumee and Sandusky rivers, the lake’s biggest tributaries, are showing record runoff of phosphorus, a major contributor to algae formation that is a prime ingredient of agricultural fertilizer.

Both menaces require urgent responses. The Kasich administration can build on previous programs aimed at keeping farm soil on fields, such as low-interest loans for efficient farm machinery.

Other options include stronger incentives for farmers to create more windbreaks and stream buffers, and to pursue targeted application of fertilizers instead of antiquated broadcast application.

Overflows of raw sewage into rivers and streams also contribute to algae growth. The administration could offer more low-interest loans to communities such as Toledo to upgrade their water and sewer systems.

Lake Erie is a priceless environmental treasure, but it also is the backbone of northern Ohio’s economy. Lake Erie tourism generates $10.1 billion in direct sales each year. It accounts for one of every 10 jobs along the shoreline, keeping 114,500 people at work while generating millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Noxious algae blooms threaten the lake-centered economy. Data from the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center in Oregon show twice as much microcystis in the lake as at this time last year. Scientists say microcystis is arriving earlier, staying later, and originating in the Maumee River as far west as Defiance and in the Sandusky River as far south as Tiffin.

This summer’s heat wave contributed to these conditions. But state regulators cannot assume such weather patterns are merely cyclical; in an era of rapid climate change, such patterns are expected to become even more volatile.

Because of Lake Erie’s algae mess, cash-strapped cities such as Toledo — or, more precisely, ratepayers — must spend thousands of dollars a day to filter and treat tap water. Charter-boat captains along the lake are losing customers who don’t want to tour or fish in a cesspool.

Algae also drives down lakefront property values. Such conditions are not congruent with the values of an administration that identifies job creation and economic growth as its priorities.

Western Lake Erie drives the Great Lakes region’s $7 billion fishing industry, about $1 billion of which is anchored in Ohio. What will happen to that valuable fishery if oxygen-depleting algae blooms are not kept in check?

Environmental stewardship is not a partisan issue. Former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, helped develop the regional water compact that limits withdrawals from the Great Lakes.

To his credit, Mr. Kasich vetoed an attempt by fellow Republicans in the General Assembly to destroy Ohio’s participation in the Great Lakes compact. Now the governor must show similar leadership on algae, an issue that is causing our region both economic and environmental harm.



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