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Published: Sunday, 8/29/2010

Toxic algae blooms choking Lake Erie

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

After years of recovery, Lake Erie is sick again.

Ask the boaters who get the spinach-like clumps of algae on their boat propellers, the tourists grossed out by the sight of pea-green water, the property owners picking up whiffs of stench, the beach-goers confronted by signs urging them to stay out of the water, and the scientists who have said at conferences for at least five years that an ecological backslide is in progress.

Biologists such as Roger Knight, who manages Ohio's Lake Erie fisheries program, are drawing correlations between algae-induced oxygen losses and below-average walleye hatches. Walleye are the backbone of the Great Lakes region's $7 billion fishery, which lives and dies with what happens in Lake Erie's western basin, which is the Great Lakes region's warmest, shallowest, and most productive area for spawning fish.

Just how sick is Lake Erie now? And where do the problem spots lie?

Those are the questions that are likely to puzzle researchers for generations, given the lake's fickle nature and its unique relationship with mankind.

Consider the grand experiment people have inadvertently created over the years between Detroit and Cleveland: Nowhere in the Great Lakes region is there a denser population of humans, industry, and agriculture affecting the shoreline, an area that also happens to be the region's most ecologically fragile.

So while the mysteries may never be fully unraveled, The Blade has decided to help the region pause, take a step back, and examine a day in the life of Lake Erie.

The newspaper sent four reporters into the field on Aug. 18 to collect water samples from seven of the most popular swimming locales in northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

Samples were analyzed for algae and E. coli bacteria, respectively, at laboratories operated by the State University of New York in Syracuse and the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center.

The SUNY college of environmental science and forestry's lab, according to UT algae researcher Tom Bridgeman, is one of the nation's "top of the line" labs for analyzing algae, a highly specialized craft.

Samples were drawn from waist-high water between noon and 3:30 p.m. on a day in which temperatures were in the mid- 80s, humidity was low, waves were calm, and winds were mild - conditions ideal for swimming.

Had they been taken immediately after sediment was stirred up by storms or affected by storm runoff, the results probably would have been more dramatic. But they wouldn't necessarily reflect the conditions under which most people choose to swim.

Even so, the results - while not alarming - were not good, either.

Lake Erie's water at Port Clinton City Beach had a level of the toxin microcystin that was 4.965 micrograms per liter, nearly five times the World Health Organization's threshold of 1 microgram per liter for drinking water (though less than the 20 micrograms per liter threshold for recreational water).

None of The Blade's samples revealed signs of excessive bacteria. Even so, state online records show the health standard for E. coli has been exceeded on eight days this summer at Maumee Bay State Park's Lake Erie beach and on six days at its inland beach. Ohio samples its beaches for bacteria four times a week from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

Maumee Bay State Park, Port Clinton City Beach, and East Harbor State Park were the only places where algae blooms were clearly visible on the day in which The Blade's samples were drawn.

"It's too bad we have a nice place like this and everyone's afraid of the water," Nancy Revill of Walbridge said while taking in an afternoon along Maumee Bay State Park's Lake Erie shoreline with her granddaughter, Kaitlyn Sheahan of Curtice, a freshman at Clay High School in Oregon.

Brian Yungfleisch, 29, an Ohio Department of Taxation employee vacationing at that park with his family, said he was not aware of its algae advisory. He had been splashing in the water with his daughter Gabby, 4, while his wife, Christina, 30, sat on the beach with the couple's daughter Lexie, who was born in March.

"We didn't know. It's scary," Ms. Yungfleisch said. "They should make people more aware."

Only a makeshift advisory sign made of computer paper was found on the beach at Maumee Bay State Park the day The Blade's samples were drawn. But several red-and-white metal signs were prominently displayed at the East Harbor State Park beach.

That didn't stop a crowd of more than 100 people from enjoying the beach, which dates to 1947. It is the oldest in Ohio's state park system. At one point, 54 people were in the water.

The results, of course, should be viewed only as a snapshot in time - no way a definitive statement but a momentary peek into what ails one of the most important basins in the world's largest collection of fresh surface water.

That's because conditions typically change within hours, as wind generates waves that push algae blooms in other directions, officials said.

Yet the information provides a benchmark because the state of Ohio had not tested western Lake Erie for algae until this month, despite the recurrence of microcystis almost every summer since 1995 and the emergence of an invasive species from the south, lyngbya wollei. The latter tends to form spinach-like mats along the shoreline, while microcystis is a free-flowing, grainy-like alga that resembles green paint or pea soup when in full bloom.

Lyngbya wollei, first spotted in western Lake Erie in 2006, is hardy enough to survive Michigan and Ohio winters. Microcystis usually dissipates by early October as autumn sets in and the lake's temperature recedes.

The situation has put state officials in a quandary: Port Clinton and other beaches, including Maumee Bay State Park and East Harbor State Park, are not quite healthy but not quite dangerous.

Microcystin is the toxin produced by microcystis, the most prevalent harmful blue-green alga in western Lake Erie. It is the same toxin that killed 75 people at a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1996. Such deaths are rare, officials have said, but the toxin is capable of inducing severe diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. Dogs lapping up water along infested shorelines have died of it.

The concentration of algae in The Blade's Lake Erie water samples from Maumee Bay State Park (2.133 micrograms per liter) and East Harbor State Park (1.795 micrograms per liter) beaches is high enough to raise eyebrows, according to Mike Satchwell, a SUNY senior research support specialist who analyzed them.

Less than 30 yards from where the water sample was taken at Maumee Bay State Park were clusters of lyngbya wollei and microcystis.

The concentration in the microcystis bloom was greater than 700 micrograms per liter.

"It was off the charts," Mr. Satchwell said.

Algae testing began this month. The impetus has been the public outcry over the massive algae blooms in Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio, said Dina Pierce, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman.

Notices are now going out daily to Ohio media outlets about new bodies of water being added or removed. As of Thursday, 16 Ohio bodies of water had algae advisories.

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Port Clinton City Beach was not one of them, possibly because of a mix-up between state and local officials over who should initiate discussions.

State officials have no authority to order an advisory on city-owned land. Because Port Clinton City Beach fell into the gray area of being unhealthy but not unsafe, officials in Columbus have been leaving it up to the city to decide if it wants to act, Ms. Pierce said.

Port Clinton Mayor Debbie Hymore-Tester said Thursday she was aware of the state's ongoing testing for bacteria but said she did not know the city beach was analyzed by the state for algae for the first and only time to date on Aug. 16, two days before The Blade's samples were drawn.

The state health department came up with a similar result, 3.4 micrograms per liter of microcystin, Ms. Pierce said.

"It's certainly something to look at," Ms. Hymore-Tester said, adding that she planned to call the Ohio EPA about the numbers on Friday. "I guess we'll have to do some research."

Samples had been drawn from only four other Lake Erie beaches as of Thursday - Maumee Bay State Park, East Harbor State Park, Catawba State Park, and Camp Perry Ohio National Guard base.

All have been sampled since Aug. 16. The only one that has been tested twice so far is Maumee Bay State Park, where the microcystin level of 0.46 microgram per liter on Aug. 16 suddenly zoomed to an astronomical 570 micrograms per liter on Aug. 18 - the same day The Blade's samples were drawn. The zig-zag is another example of how rapidly conditions can change, Ms. Pierce said.

The state-generated data for the other area beaches, all from Aug. 16 samples, are as follows: East Harbor, 3.2 micrograms per liter; Catawba, 5.5 micrograms per liter, and Camp Perry, 2.1 micrograms per liter.

Microcystis is hardly a new phenomenon.

It was prevalent in western Lake Erie throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Massive blooms of it helped lead to passage of the landmark federal Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972. The latter is an international treaty in which the United States and Canada promised to clean up their sides of the lakes.

Both measures are often cited as a turning point for western Lake Erie and the Great Lakes at large because they led to the era of modern sewage treatment.

Microcystis disappeared for more than 20 years before coming back in the summer of 1995, the same year that declines in phosphorus levels began reversing. The alga has coated Lake Erie's western basin almost annually since then.

Despite improvements, millions of gallons of raw human fecal matter still enter the lakes when heavy rains overwhelm combined sewage systems.

But the No. 1 source of algae-growing phosphorus continues to be farm runoff, according to David Baker, professor emeritus and longtime director of Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality.

This year has been the heaviest since that center began tracking the pollutant in 1975 along the Maumee River from a station in Waterville, which is well removed from area sewage plants and their overflow points. It also has been one of the heaviest for the Sandusky River, Mr. Baker said.

The Maumee and the Sandusky are both major Lake Erie tributaries.

Microcystis has gotten so thick in northwest Ohio that blooms can be detected upstream along the Maumee as far as Defiance, according to David Culver, a retired Ohio State University lake specialist who several years ago delivered expert testimony to Congress about western Lake Erie's algae.

Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, said nuisance algae such as microcystis will keep coming earlier and staying longer unless the phosphorus problem or the Earth's greenhouse gases are reined in. The latter have been blamed for the gradual increases in the Earth's climate that scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have documented in recent years.

To make the nuisance algae go away from Lake Erie again will require about a 75 percent reduction in phosphorus runoff, Mr. Reutter said. That, he said, could mean a tough choice for politicians who have stayed clear of imposing more regulations on the farming industry.

"In order to have an ecosystem that is healthy for people, we're going to have to have some real significant reductions in phosphorus. The indications are way too much is being applied," Mr. Reutter said. "As we look to the future, are we able to achieve the amount that's required simply by incentives and best management practices?"

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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