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Yearly Algae Forecast Looks Bad for Lake Erie

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Yearly Algae Forecast Looks Bad for Lake ErieA satellite image of the 2011 toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, the worst the body of water had seen in decades. Photos via Wiki Commons.
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Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that Lake Erie could expect a larger than usual toxic algae bloom this summer. The potential bloom is likely to be more severe than last year, and perhaps on par with some of the blooms that have plagued the lakeside communities in recent years.

“Algae” is a catchall term for a group of extremely simple, photosynthetic organisms that live in freshwater and in the ocean. Typically, algae are harmless, but occasionally a colony of algae can explode in size, releasing toxins that can be dangerous to plant, animal and sometimes human life. Even if a species of algae is not toxic, the sudden death and decay of huge amounts of algae can lower the water’s oxygen level. NOAA calls these algae explosions harmful algal blooms or HABs.

NOAA is able to forecast the severity of the HAB in Lake Erie because such blooms are fueled by runoff pollution. Runoff is another catchall term referring to what happens when rainwater collects different materials and substances in the ground and carries them to the nearest waterway, which eventually empties into Lake Erie. In the case of algae, the most significant runoff is manure and fertilizer spread on acres of farmland in the Erie watershed. All of that fertilizer is designed, of course, to help plants grow, and that includes algae. When fertilizer runoff hits the Lake, it supercharges the algae bloom.

Algae bloom on the shore of Catawaba Island in Lake Erie.

As such, NOAA is basing its forecast of a severe algae bloom on “heavy rains in April that produced high river flow and large phosphorus loads.” The forecast notes, however, that, “there is considerable uncertainty in the projected maximum severity; the maximum is based on the possible occurrence of heavy rain in June and early July.”

NOAA’s algae forecast comes less than three months after Toledo voters passed the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” with 61 percent of the vote. The ballot measure amending the Toledo city charter declares that Lake Erie “is in imminent danger of irreversible devastation…” and that “Lake Erie, and the Lake Erie watershed, possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights faced legal challenges immediately after passage in the form of a federal lawsuit by Drewes Farm Partnership of Custar, Ohio. In addition to arguing that the LEBOR is “unconstitutional and unlawful” the lawsuit claims the charter amendment “exposes Drewes Farms to massive liability if Drewes Farms continues to fertilize its fields because it can never guarantee that all runoff will be prevented from entering the Lake Erie watershed.”

Courts have traditionally not been kind to “community rights” provisions like Toledo’s, according to Peggy Kirk Hall, Ellen Essman, and Evin Bachelor of the OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program. They write, “Academic scholarship argues that many of the community rights proposals violate long standing legal doctrines regarding federal supremacy over states, state supremacy over local governments, and constitutional rights given to corporations.”

NOAA will continue to monitor the next two months of rainfall and runoff to determine the likely maximum severity of this summer’s algae bloom, though at this juncture the projected bloom looks unlikely to match the widespread blooms of 2011 and 2015. NOAA researchers will release their final forecast on July 11 at the Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, just off Put-In-Bay. Until then, every bit of rainfall will determine just how bad the bloom ends up being.

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