Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Saving a great lake

Blooms of toxic algae taint the drinking water of 3 million people near Lake Erie; that threat must be addressed

SUMMER is here, with boating and other water sports in Ohio. It’s time to think about the health of Lake Erie, again. We must clean up the lake, again.

Our end of Lake Erie will endure more blooms of toxic blue-green algae this summer. This is a threat to public health in greater Toledo, and it will have a significant financial cost as well.

The blooms will peak by mid-September, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The cause is a poisonous cocktail that is partly natural and partly man-made.

Climate change is causing heavier spring rainfall. There is runoff of fertilizer and lawn chemicals. There is the growing presence of invasive zebra mussels. These things raise phosphorus levels in Lake Erie, and phosphorus feeds algae.

The stench from algae discourages boating and use of beaches. It compromises the lake’s $10 billion tourism industry. Walleye and yellow perch are fewer in number, so commercial and recreational fishing will take a huge hit. The blooms also threaten the drinking water of nearly 3 million people.

In the late 1960s, algae pollution in Lake Erie reached crisis proportions. The lake was almost unusable, and the butt of jokes by late-night comics. The United States and Canada worked together and spent billions of dollars to rescue the lake, and they succeeded.

But by the mid-1990s, the poisonous blooms had returned. And most years, they have gotten progressively worse. So we need to save the lake again.

We need to wean farmers from their addiction to fertilizers; encouraging efforts to that end are proceeding in Ohio. Anna Michalak, a researcher at Stanford University, says fertilizers can be as bad for the land as they are for water.

“We need management policies that are good for agriculture as well as the lake ecology,” she says. “It doesn’t do anybody any good to have these nutrients flowing into the lake. It’s money being wasted by the farmers, and you are essentially fertilizing the algae instead of fertilizing the crops.”

The Obama Administration and Congress must keep their pledge to fund fully the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. State, federal, and local officials need to work closely together. Our government must engage Canada, as it did before.

And we must not wait. We must not let the problem fester and the algae continue to take Lake Erie, and the tourist dollars it attracts, from us.

This is an urgent matter of public health, as well as respect for one of Mother Earth’s great wonders. Let’s clean up this beautiful lake, and make it pristine and fit for mankind’s use once more.

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