Sliming Lake Erie


It’s become evident — except to those deniers who are determined not to see it — that global climate change is aggravating the plague of toxic algae in western Lake Erie. If environmental concerns are not enough finally to force action on a broad front to clean up the lake, then the threat to a resource that contributes nearly $11 billion a year to northern Ohio’s tourism economy surely must be.

Last week, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the federal Sea Grant program said that this year’s algae blooms in Lake Erie did not recede until late October — a month later than normal. They attributed that development to higher temperatures, increased rainfall, more-intense storms, and reduced lake ice cover in the region, all related to climate change. And they warned the algae problem will get worse in the absence of concerted action to curb greenhouse gases that contribute to man-made global warming.

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Other scientists say this year’s algae blooms in western Lake Erie were worse, denser, and more widespread than expected — the second-worst of this century in some areas. A state task force seeks a 40-percent cut in phosphorus entering northwest Ohio waterways, notably the Maumee River; phosphorus feeds algae growth in the lake, which depletes its supply of oxygen.

Many factors contribute to algae blooms in western Lake Erie: fertilizer runoff from farms, businesses, and homeowners; dredged sediment from the Toledo ship channel that is dumped into the open waters of North Maumee Bay; sewage overflows, and industrial waste.

The effects of algae pollution of Lake Erie are equally varied and dire: health hazards to people and wildlife; threats to the lake’s commercial and sport fishing industries; losses in regional tourism that supports more than 100,000 jobs and $750 million in annual tax revenue; potential danger to the chief source of drinking water for 3 million Ohioans; depressed lakefront property values, and this year, higher costs for Toledo taxpayers to counteract a toxin that migrated from the lake to the city’s water intake.

Elected officials propose several useful measures to curb toxic algae blooms, in Lake Erie and elsewhere. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) seeks to reauthorize a federal law that provides a vital research and response framework aimed at controlling harmful algae nationwide. Congress also needs to fund adequately, not starve, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) has introduced legislation that would greatly reduce open-lake disposal. Toledo Mayor-elect D. Michael Collins has pledged to pay more attention than his predecessor to operations at a facility along Maumee Bay that gets sewage sludge from the city’s wastewater treatment plant in Point Place and disposes of especially contaminated material dredged from the ship channel.

All of these measures are useful, and urgent, to deal with Lake Erie’s algae mess. But they will have only limited effect without a meaningful effort to address, rather than deny, the disastrous effects of global climate change — now.