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Published: Thursday, 4/5/2012

Efforts to halt toxic algae in Lake Erie get local audience

BY TONY COOK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ohio, Michigan, and U.S. government officials shared what they're doing to deal with the burgeoning toxic algae problem in Lake Erie during a panel Wednesday at Maumee Bay State Park.

In Ohio, those efforts revolve primarily around education and additional studies, but stop short of some of the more aggressive steps Michigan has taken.

Those in the audience, which included charter boat captains, environmentalists, and others, said the event was encouraging because it demonstrated a growing concern about the problem. But they also said stronger action is urgently needed to prevent massive algae blooms from destroying the lake and impacting Ohio's $10 billion a year Lake Erie tourism industry.

Algae in Lake Erie's western basin has increased in recent years because of high concentrations of phosphorus, which enters the lake when rainwater washes fertilizer, manure, and sewage into tributaries. Scott Nally, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said the state is working with farmers and municipal waste facilities to help them find ways to reduce the amount of phosphorus that finds its way into the lake. The state also will more closely monitor the problem and plans to enlist the help of charter boat captains to collect samples from the lake.

Though a state task force determined in April, 2010, that manure and fertilizers from farms were the prime source of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie, officials on the panel said repeatedly they weren't trying to point fingers.

"One of the things we recognized from the very beginning is that agriculture and agricultural nutrients [do] play a role in some of the problems we see," said David Daniels, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

"We recognize there's a problem, but we have tried to be extremely cautious about laying the blame at any one industry's feet."

He, too, emphasized the need for additional testing.

"As we're proceeding, we understand the urgency of this," he said. "But also understand we've got a lot more data we need to collect."

The tone from Ohio officials differed from that of their Michigan counterparts.

"We're defined by water," said Dan Wyant, director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality. "Water is why people come to Michigan to live, work, and play."

For that reason, the state has sought to aggressively control phosphorous. Michigan banned it from residential fertilizer this year, and it restricts animal farms from applying phosphorus to their land if rain is forecast within 24 hours or if the land is frozen or snow-covered.

"We think that's going to be a pretty significant effect on our streams and tributaries to the Great Lakes," said Bill Creal, chief of the state's water resources division.

He cited the results of a similar ban on phosphorous in residential fertilizer in Ann Arbor. Phosphorus levels downstream of the city fell 28 percent after the ban, he said.

Ohio has no such ban, though Mr. Nally of the Ohio EPA said lawn and garden company Scotts has agreed to a voluntary ban. Ohio also does not restrict winter application of manure on farms, though it can in a watershed that has been labeled distressed. That was the case at Grand Lake St. Mary basin last year. Ohio state spent millions of dollars there to clean up out-of-control algae.

After Wednesday's event, attendee Sandy Bihn, director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, a Toledo-based environmental group, questioned why Ohio isn't taking the same kind of aggressive steps as Michigan.

"Why don't we look at these practices?" she asked. "We're doing nothing."

Jerry Abel, a charter-boat captain and director of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, said the algae has hit his industry hard. The number of licensed charter-boat captains in Ohio dropped from 800 in 2010 to 700 last year, and the remaining captains made about half as many trips as usual, he said.

He was encouraged that the issue had brought together so many high-level officials from so many jurisdictions, but he worried that Ohio officials are "studying the issue to death."

"No one wants to stick their neck out without all the research being nailed down," he said. "We actually need to start doing something."

Kelly Frey, Ottawa County sanitary engineer, said the algae should be a major concern for taxpayers. Algae-infested water takes more time to treat, reducing the capacity of water treatment plants, he said. In high concentrations, it can also pose a health risk.

The panel, he said, "shows they recognize the magnitude of the issue."

Contact Tony Cook at: tcook@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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