Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Algae food found in 30% of Ohio farmland

Phosphorus linked to outbreaks on lake


Nearly a third of of all Ohio farmland is believed to contain too much phosphorous, leading to algae outbreaks in Lake Erie.

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OAK HARBOR, Ohio -- Ohio's six state agency directors learned Wednesday that nearly a third of all Buckeye State farmland is believed to contain too much phosphorus, one of many possible reasons for large annual algae outbreaks in western Lake Erie since 1995.

The revelation was made at the quarterly Ohio Lake Erie Commission meeting by Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island near Put-in-Bay and director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ohio Sea Grant College Program.

According to a report published Tuesday, which Mr. Reutter said soon will be on the Ohio Lake Erie Commission Web site, two OSU researchers spent months analyzing data from a million soil samples from across the state. Roughly 300,000 samples had excessive phosphorus, a common farm fertilizer and a vital nutrient for algae. Phosphorus also is found in human and animal fecal waste.

Results came from a combination of recent samples and information on file for years.

Mr. Reutter said the trending benchmark is important because years can pass before phosphorus-laden soil is washed into rivers and streams, which then put excessive nutrients into the Maumee River and its tributaries and eventually into Lake Erie's Maumee Bay.

Evidence of prevailing high phosphorus levels is an important piece of the algae puzzle, but, he said, "I can't see a big silver bullet that says, 'If you do this, then [the algae problem] is done.' "

Ohio's concentration of phosphorus is fairly consistent county to county except for portions of Mercer County, near Lima, that are believed to have problems with animal manure runoff, Mr. Reutter said. Officials need to know more about how phosphorus interacts with the unique chemistry of northwest Ohio soil, he said.

James J. Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said the algae presentation was "spot on."

Besides Mr. Reutter, presenters included Ed Hammett, retiring Ohio Lake Erie Office director, and Gail Hesse, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency manager and an administrator of the agency's Lake Erie and surface drinking water protection programs. She also headed the multiagency Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force that last year published the results of the largest statewide investigation of that fertilizer.

During his presentation, Mr. Reutter said the manner and timing of phosphorus application are every bit as critical as its volume.

He said farmers should phase down fall applications and eliminate those in winter, especially when the ground is frozen.

Mr. Zehringer said the agriculture department will be working more closely with farmers on application techniques and will urge farmers to have their soil tested so phosphorus application can be targeted more precisely.

Algae is costly in many ways, from decreased property values to fewer sunbathers and tourists.

Tourism accounts for $38 billion of economic impact in Ohio, with $10 billion of that in counties along Lake Erie, according to figures released Wednesday by the Ohio Department of Development.

According to Ms. Hesse, Toledo spends $3,000 to $4,000 a day operating carbon-activated filtration equipment to neutralize algae whenever microcystis and other forms of toxic blue-green algae are drawn into the city's water intake crib three miles north of the Lake Erie shoreline.

About two-thirds of the farm fertilizer applied in Ohio comes from commercial products. The other third comes from animal manure, Ms. Hesse said.



The state of Ohio has created a Web site and a revised advisory system to warn the public about harmful algae blooms. will be used as a clearinghouse of information from the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Recreational advisories will tell people if a bloom capable of producing toxins has been confirmed, if levels of a common toxin, microcystin, reach harmful levels of six parts per billion or greater, and if the microcystin levels reach the dangerous 20 ppb level and have led to the report of a human illness or pet death. The warnings are steeper at each level.

There also will be separate advisories for drinking water if dangerous toxins are found at unsafe levels in the finished water of a public drinking water system.


Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.

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