Lake Erie, which was once thought of a “dead zone” after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, has been restored to a boon for the area’s walleye population after strict
environmental regulations through the 1970s.
But according to Dr. Jeff Reutter, a researcher who studies the lake, the lake’s ecosystem has been declining since 1995, and ignoring the small problems that plague the lake now can be devastating to the future population.
Reutter directs operations at Stone Laboratory, a research base for Ohio State University students at Put-in-Bay. Specifically, the group’s research has focused on measuring harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie — an ongoing project Reutter said is important to track throughout the years.
High phosphorous levels and nutrient loading, along with seasonally warm and calm water, can create the harmful algal blooms that Reutter said have been known to cause potentially negative health effects.
Although many algal blooms provide a substantial food source for fish and wildlife, Reutter said harmful blooms have been found that are capable of producing toxins that can be harmful to swimmers.
Since 2010, the Ohio Department of Health has documented 74 reports of illnesses with exposure to harmful algal blooms. Of those, the blooms caused 43 “probable” illnesses, but the health department has no certified laboratory test to confirm the presence of HAB toxins in the body.
Reutter said the blooms, which often create a green or black scum on the surface of lakes, also can lower economic values of lakeside property.
“If you have a hotel or beach along the shore line, no one wants to come to that hotel or beach if you’re having a harmful algal bloom,” he said. “We know that the harmful algal blooms reduce coastal property values.”
According to a biennial report from the Ohio Tourism Division, tourism is important to the Lake Erie Shores and Islands area, generating
$1.6 billion in 2011. Tourism sustains a third of salaried employment in Erie County and nearly a quarter in Ottawa County, far above the state’s average of 8.7 percent.
Reutter said there has not been enough research to determine if the harmful blooms affect the fish population, but he said researchers have observed walleye hatches decrease in areas with high concentrations of toxins, like microcystin.
Record high blooms
Microcystis is a common species of blue-green algae, capable of producing the potentially harmful toxin microcystin. Microcystis is all-too-common in Lake Erie, according to research by Dr. Tom Bridgeman.
Bridgeman, a professor at The University of Toledo and former Stone Lab student, found the highest concentration of Microcystis blooms in 2009 — the highest recorded number since he began measuring for it in 2002.
When the blooms decreased in 2010, Reutter said researchers believed the problem may have been alleviated until 2011, when record rainfall caused blooms at more than twice that of 2009’s recorded numbers.
“It was greater than we had predicted,” Reutter said of 2011’s readings. “We’re back up now to the levels we were in the ’70s, and that’s the big concern.”
The World Health Organization has recommended that people avoid swimming in water with microcystis at 20 parts per billion. According to Reutter, at its highest in Lake Erie this year, microcystin was recorded at 60 parts per billion.
Vermilion residents and Lorain residents likely noticed the blooms last year, which spread from the western basin of Lake Erie to as far east as Cleveland. Satellite images on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website showed the migration of the algae, which coated the coastline.
This year gave a respite to Ohio boaters and beachgoers, however.
With low rainfall, the algal blooms appeared to have cleared somewhat, and Reutter predicted 2012’s blooms will be less than 10 percent of last year’s blooms.
Microcystis blooms need nutrients and phosphorous, often deriving from agricultural run-off, to form. Although Reutter acknowledged low rainfall was bad for agriculture this year, it did have a positive effect on the lake.
“2011 was an extreme year in that it was a record year on rainfall. The spring was extremely wet and that led to record blooms,” he said. “Right now, we’re at a situation where we need to change our farming management practices so that we can avoid those blooms, regardless of how much rain we get.”
Correcting the problem
Nearly a third of Ohio’s farmland is overloaded with phosphorus, according to a 2011 report from the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.
Ohio State University researchers tested a million soil samples from across the state, and roughly 300,000 samples had excessive phosphorus, a common farm fertilizer and a vital nutrient for algae.
Although fertilizers are being developed with lower amounts of phosphorus, Reutter said farmers need to be proactive to reduce nutrient and phosphorous loading into the lake by eliminating fertilizers containing phosphorus or limiting their use.
“Right now, the trends are all in the wrong direction,” he said. “We’re getting more loading year after year. So right now, we could predict that an average amount of rainfall would lead to loads that are three or four times what it was this year.”
That’s easier said than done, said Ashley McDonald of Ohio Department of Agriculture.
McDonald said high yield plants need phosphorus to grow, and phosphorus is the main nutrient in most fertilizers. She did acknowledge that farmers need to be wary of their fertilizer use, however, and the agriculture department is working with Gov. John Kasich, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to develop a solution to the run-off problem.
“We definitely realize that this is an issue of great importance,” she said.
McDonald recommended that farmers determine the “best usage” for phosphorus, including introducing fertilizer when the crop demand is at its highest and eliminating unnecessary use of fertilizer. The recommended amount of fertilizer can be found in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Technical Standard for Nutrient Management, she added.
Reutter said there are steps that others can take as well.
He recommended using low flow toilets and shower heads to reduce the amount of water sent to sewage treatment plants to prevent combined sewer overflows into the lake —students at Stone Lab have been implementing some of these practices on the island. Reutter said he also uses rain barrels under gutters and has planted a rain garden to further reduce run-off.
Reutter said he is now working to obtain funding to begin monitoring the lake more substantially, which has not been “officially” monitored since 1997.
The Ohio EPA began monitoring Lake Erie in the 1970s and from 1996 through 1997, according to Ohio EPA Lake Erie Coordinator Amy Jo Klei. But due to a lack of funding and the belief that the lake’s health was restored, official monitoring efforts ended.
The Ohio EPA again stepped up monitoring efforts in 2010 after receiving several grants through a three-year comprehensive nearshore monitoring program. Reutter said, however, research must continue after 2013, when the program is expected to end.
“We just know, right now with the problems the lake is having, that we need to be able to go back and (monitor the lake) again,” he said.
Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.