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Published: Sunday, 5/20/2012

COMMENTARY

Fight algae, save Lake Erie

BY SANDY BIHN

Water is key to northwest Ohio's economy. If we fail to deal forthrightly with the threat toxic algae blooms pose to Lake Erie, we risk losing the advantages our water gives us.

The Great Lakes have 20 percent of the world's supply of fresh water, and 95 percent of the supply in the United States. Close to home, Lake Erie provides drinking water to 11 million people. It supports more than 100,000 jobs in Ohio and $10 billion in annual economic activity.

The shallow western basin of Lake Erie has the least volume of water in the Great Lakes, but it is the fishiest part of the lakes. Because we have access to so much good-quality water, we take our daily use of it for granted.

But that supply and access to it are jeopardized by deteriorating water quality. Last year, Lake Erie's algae blooms extended from Toledo to Cleveland. Researchers said the outbreaks were worse than in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, the lake's robust tourism business included more than 1,200 charter fishing boats. Today, that total is down to about 700. When algae engulf Lake Erie, its stocks of walleye, yellow perch, and bass decline, while less-desirable fish thrive.

What is to be done? Grand Lake St. Marys, a community north of Dayton that relies on a 13,000 acre, man-made inland lake for summer tourism, offers a model.

In 2010, the lake had so many algae blooms that animals died and people got sick. The main source of algae was phosphorous-laden manure runoff from nearby concentrated animal feeding operations.

Signs warned visitors not to touch the water. Businesses closed and property values plummeted. State government told local residents they were on their own.

Business and community leaders rallied to save the lake. They formed a lake improvement association with public and private partners. They met with state and federal officials to demand action.

They raised more than $600,000 in private funds in 2010 and $1 million the next year. They used that money to buy aerators to put oxygen back in the water and sediment traps to catch phosphorous before it got into the lake. At the same time, they lined up more than $7 million in public money for lake monitoring, technology studies, and demonstration projects.

While Grand Lake St. Marys got better last year, Lake Erie got worse. Lake Erie can recover quickly as well, but it needs similar attention.

The Maumee and Detroit rivers each contribute more than 40 percent of the phosphorous that feed toxic algae blooms. The major contributors to phosphorous are commercial fertilizers used on farms, manure, wastewater discharges and overflows, and storm water.

There were almost no factory farms in the 1970s. Today, such farms contribute an estimated 15 percent of Lake Erie's phosphorous.

A cow can produce as much waste as 20 people. Animal manure first goes to lagoons, then is spread on farm fields throughout the year. When it is applied to frozen ground, it can get into waterways more easily. Human waste requires treatment; why not animal waste?

Field tiles and improved storm drainage rush phosphorous-polluted water to Lake Erie and its tributaries much more quickly than in past decades. Sediments dredged from the Toledo shipping channel once were confined; now they are dumped in the lake.

More than 5 percent of Lake Erie's phosphorous comes from the decrepit wastewater plant -- the nation's largest -- that serves four million people and businesses in the city of Detroit and 78 of its suburbs. From 2009 through 2011, the plant discharged thousands of tons of sewage sludge directly into the Detroit River, near its outfall to Lake Erie. The plant averages 28 billion gallons of sewage overflow a year.

These issues suggest an action agenda for Lake Erie: Spreading fertilizer and manure on frozen ground should be banned. Lake Erie communities, especially Detroit, should be required to reduce the phosphorous in their wastewater discharges.

Open lake dumping must end. Habitats must be restored. Technologies that reduce or extract phosphorous and algae should be accelerated. The newly formed Lake Erie Improvement Association, patterned on the Grand Lake St. Mary's model, is leading efforts to gain private support to accelerate and leverage private investment.

Lake Erie's excessive algae blooms threaten our economy, our environment, and our health. We must reduce the sources of those blooms -- now.

Sandy Bihn is executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper Inc.



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