Lake Erie algae growth threatens tourism, drinking water

Posted in: Misc Water Issues, United States Water News, Water Contamination, Water Education, Water Health Effects
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Article courtesy of Dylan C. Robertson | February 28, 2014 | Metro | Shared as educational material

Lake Erie algae growth threatens tourism drinking water

An uptick in algae growth is threatening Lake Erie, as toxic green scum blooms across a lake that saw a major turnaround in the 1980s.

According to a Canada-U.S. environmental study released Thursday, an increasing amount of algae is sucking the oxygen out of Lake Erie, leaving a pungent smell and icky green water.

The International Joint Commission, a cross-border group that co-ordinates Great Lakes research and policy, warns that Lake Erie’s water quality is under fire, impacting nearby ecosystems, drinking water, tourism and property values.

The group says massive algae blooms must be prevented by setting targets on nutrients that enter Lake Erie. The report cites soluble reactive phosphorus as a major offender. This form of phosphorus usually comes from fertilizer and manure, and its runoff is often swept into the lake by melting snow.

These extra nutrients, combined with warmer temperatures and low winds, allow naturally occurring algae to thrive. These rapidly multiplying blooms suck oxygen out of the lake, leaving green sludge along the surface.

This isn’t the first time Lake Erie’s been in distress. Officials declared the lake “dead” in the 1960s after an onslaught of heavy algae. Governments on both sides of the border tackled major sources of a less-soluble phosphorus in the 1980s, creating a success story that has now gone sour.

“It’s time for governments at all levels to put the lake on a diet by setting targets and achieving real reductions in nutrient loads,” Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the IJC, said in a statement.

Thursday’s report was commissioned after a dreadful 2011 summer, when a 5,000-square-kilometre algal bloom closed beaches around Lake Erie.

‘Everybody plays a part’

A local conservation group says small steps can help ease the problem.

“When it’s explained to them, people are pretty receptive,” says Kevin Money, director of conservation services with the Essex Region Conservation Authority.

Sewage systems bring large amounts of phosphorus into waterways, which is easily preventable.

“A key step is not using a fertilizer that has phosphorous in it,” says Money. “People often don’t realize their soil usually has enough nutrients.”

He also advises retaining the amount of runoff from your house, such as disconnecting your property’s downspout from the storm drain to a lawn, which costs as little as $5.00. Using a rain garden or rain barrel for runoff can also help keep nutrients out of sewage systems.

“Often times these things are really basic things that don’t cost anybody anything, especially in an urban environment,” says Money.

“Everybody plays a part in our environment.”

For more information, see the Essex Region Conservation Authority’s phosphorus fact sheet (PDF).

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