Western Lake Erie could be on the verge of one of its worst algae outbreaks in years.
Heavy spring rain and unusually high phosphorus levels in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, coupled with massive overflows from Detroit-area and Toledo-area sewage plants, spurred growth of a toxic brew of algae known as microcystis in June. Then July's hotter-than-normal temperatures began heating up the water more, causing more algae growth.
Boaters have been complaining for weeks about slime near the lake's surface from Monroe to Sandusky. The algae has formed dense mats on calm days, especially in the Toledo and Port Clinton areas.
John Hageman, manager of Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, near Put-in-Bay, predicts an "all-time record algae bloom" when the annual peak occurs in early September.
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"By all accounts, it looks like we're going to have the mother of all blue-green algae counts later this summer," he said. "I expect that in early September it will be just an absolute green lake. It's going to be like somebody just turned over a can of green paint."
Algae is more than an aesthetic issue. Its robs water of oxygen for fish. It carries odors that can discourage tourism and hurt property values.
It also is a public health threat.
Although certain types of native green algae are good for Lake Erie and feed plankton that are an integral part of the food web, many of the blue-green varieties - such as microcystis - are classified by scientists as harmful algal blooms.
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People are advised to avoid body contact and to keep their pets from lapping up algae-infested water. In high enough concentrations, microcystis and other forms of blue-green algae can cause diarrhea, cramping, and nausea - and can even be lethal.
The imbalance is usually a result of excessive nutrients and heat.
Roger Knight, Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Lake Erie fisheries program manager, said his research unit in Sandusky is wondering if microcystis - which returned in 1995 following a 20-year absence - is at least partially to blame for below-average walleye hatches in recent years.
The algae's generation-long disappearance has been credited largely to sewage controls put into place after the advent of modern pollution laws in the early 1970s.
The walleye is one of the lake's most coveted fish and one of its greatest economic drivers, drawing fishermen from throughout the Midwest.
But after several record hatches in the 1980s - when there were virtually no nuisance algae - the walleye numbers have decreased. The only above-average hatch in recent years was in 2003, according to Mr. Knight, a member of a state phosphorus task force that in April published the results of a three-year study about the relationship between algae and the region's runoff.
Pollution-tolerant species such as carp and drum aren't as greatly affected. To a lesser degree, the same is true for certain sport fish such as yellow perch and smallmouth bass, he said.
"What you lose are the sensitive species like walleye," Mr. Knight said.
Walleye, yellow perch, and smallmouth bass are the biggest draws of an Ohio sport-fishing industry valued at nearly $1 billion a year. The state's recreation is an important part of the Great Lakes region's fishery, valued at $7 billion a year.
"We know there's too much phosphorus in the water. It's not the phosphorus that's attached to sediments as particles that's the problem; it's the phosphorus that's dissolved in the water," Mr. Knight said.
Toledoan Paul Pacholski, the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association's 2010 charter boat captain of the year, said he's amazed how much microcystis already exists. For the first several years after it re-emerged in 1995, it didn't bloom until mid-August and usually dissipated within six weeks. Lately, it's been arriving earlier and staying longer.
"It's all over the lake," he said. "You can normally go a couple of miles offshore this time of year and find good, clean, and clear water. You can't this year."
The algae is increasing operating costs for his business, Deac's Retreat Charters, based out of Meinke's West Marina at Cooley Canal in Jerusalem Township. Mr. Pacholski said he is spending more on gasoline, taking clients out farther into the lake on his 30-foot boat, the Erie Hopper.
Many of his customers are from out of state and would think they're "fishing in a toilet bowl" if he stayed closer to shore, where the algae is thick.
"It has changed the way we have to do business," Mr. Pacholski said. "There's a
$1 billion [Ohio fishing] industry at stake here."
University of Toledo researcher Tom Bridgeman, who has been studying western Lake Erie's algae problems since 2002 out of UT's Lake Erie Center in Oregon, likened the free-floating microcystis to "shredded plastic" while cruising the lake on Friday.
He said it mats on the surface when the lake is calm and recirculates through the water column when waves kick up, only to collect again on the surface when conditions settle.
"We're on track to have a very large crop of microcystis this summer," Mr. Bridgeman said.
This year is the third consecutively for an excessive bloom. Last year's was the biggest he had seen since starting his research on the lake eight years ago, Mr. Bridgeman said.
Microcystis has the same toxin linked to 75 deaths at a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1996. An international investigation headed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that facility's water-treatment system had failed.
One of western Lake Erie's other most prevalent forms of algae, lyngbya wollei, is an exotic to this region. It appeared for the first time in 2006. It hugs the shoreline, forms thick weedlike clumps, and is believed to be hardy enough to survive year-round.
Many researchers believe the region's algae problem will get worse unless more cities install better sewage controls and more farmers, golf course operators, and homeowners participate in programs to curb runoff.
They have said that's an especially likely scenario if predictions about warming trends made by scientists with the United Nations' Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prove to be true. The Earth's expanding population also could lead to more runoff as demand for food rises and more land is developed.
Toledo settled years of litigation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about a decade ago by making plans to phase in $650 million of improvements by 2015.
The program, called the Toledo Waterways Initiative, will lead to a virtual end to sewage overflows. Toledo's capacity is being more than doubled so that it can handle the heaviest of volumes generated by thunderstorms, although the overflow points are being kept functional on a standby basis in the event of a major flood.
But even with those improvements being phased in, the city's online records show Toledo has had overflows of raw sewage into the Maumee, the Ottawa River, Swan Creek, or other area streams every month for the past year, even in the winter.
Although many lasted 30 minutes or less, two in recent weeks lasted at least 24 consecutive hours. Both April and June had 112 overflows. May had 127. Last month had 45 as of July 16, records show.
Overflows from the Detroit area also are reportedly high this summer.
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