The belated arrival of spring gives northern Ohioans the opportunity to worry about the coat of toxic algae that will foul Lake Erie again this summer. That concern must be accompanied by the resolve to clean up the lake, again.
A new report confirms that the largest algae bloom in Lake Erie’s history slimed nearly a fifth of the lake’s surface in 2011, starting at the mouth of the Maumee River here and stretching to Cleveland. But that dismal record may not stand for long: Weather forecasters predict higher than usual rainfall along the lake’s western end this spring, portending a rampant algae outbreak in summer and fall.
The causes of the toxic blue-green algae strangling the lake are well established. Climate change that is causing heavier spring rainfall, runoff from the use of farm fertilizer and to a lesser extent lawn chemicals, and the growing presence of invasive zebra mussels all raise phosphorus levels in Lake Erie. And phosphorus feeds algae; this nutrient is anything but benign.
The effects of the pollution are equally clear, and dire. Populations and catches of walleye and yellow perch are way down, especially in Lake Erie’s western basin, threatening its commercial and sport fishing industries.
Stinking algae discourage boating and beach-going, jeopardizing the lake’s $10 billion tourism/recreation industry. The toxic blooms depress the property values of homeowners along the lake’s shore.
The blooms also taint the drinking water of nearly 3 million people, and cause skin irritation and liver disease. The dead zone at the bottom of the lake, where there is no oxygen, is growing.
Lake Erie has faced similar perils before. In the late 1960s, the algae pollution was caused by the indiscriminate dumping of raw sewage and industrial waste, along with phosphates from laundry detergents. The United States and Canada enacted environmental regulations and spent billions of dollars to rescue the lake, and they succeeded.
But the victory was only temporary; starting in the mid-1990s, the poisonous blooms started to return, worse than ever. No less an effort — and probably a greater one — is required today to save Lake Erie. And it must start now.
Corn and soybean farmers, especially in the Maumee watershed, will need to change the ways and times they apply phosphorus-generating fertilizer and animal waste to their fields, and use less of both. They will need to curb runoff by leaving land fallow near ditches and streams that feed into the lake.
Financial and technical help from government should be made available to enable the transition. This is not an occasion for austerity.
The Obama Administration and Congress must keep their pledge to fund fully the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. And the condition of Lake Erie is one more piece of evidence that we must combat climate change, not deny it.
Lake Erie is the most fragile of the Great Lakes. Its algae scum is nature’s predictable rebuke to two decades of shameful abuse. Instead of exposing the lake to further risks, all who benefit from its gifts must protect it — if not out of environmental or generational concern, then out of sheer self-interest.