Algal blooms lead to 'impaired' designation for Lake Erie

November 10, 2016 by John Flesher

The state of Michigan is designating its section of Lake Erie as an impaired waterway because of damage to fish and other wildlife caused by harmful algal blooms, officials said Thursday.

The declaration affects only the part of the under Michigan's jurisdiction, which is less than 2 percent. But it was required under the federal Clean Water Act after shoreline monitoring and analysis of satellite imagery showed that the western Lake Erie basin was failing to meet Michigan water quality standards, said Heidi Grether, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

"Michigan's portion of Lake Erie is small but, in making this determination, we signal the importance of our actions to date and our commitment moving forward to limit the incidences of severe that impact aquatic life and wildlife in our waters," Grether told The Associated Press.

Outbreaks of blue-green algae—which is actually a type of bacteria that can produce toxins—have plagued the lake since the 1990s, at times coating large sections in pea-green slime.

Contamination in 2014 left more than 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, and parts of southeastern Michigan unable to drink tap water for two days. The 2015 bloom was the largest on record—covering an area the size of New York City.

This year's bloom was smaller because there were fewer storms that washed phosphorus-laden fertilizers into the lake. But toxicity levels were higher, according to scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Michigan, Ohio and the Canadian province of Ontario agreed in 2015 to seek a 40 percent cut in phosphorus runoff into the lake by 2015. They are developing plans to meet the goal, focusing primarily on preventing overflows from municipal and encouraging farmers to use practices that prevent manure and fertilizers from flowing into tributary rivers.

A finding that a water body is impaired can lead to a federal order for stricter pollution controls. Such controls include a maximum amount of a contaminant that can exist in the water and regulation of industries and others that cause the pollution.

But for now, Michigan officials are not developing such a plan, known as a "Total Maximum Daily Load" or TMDL blueprint. Instead, they will ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to give the agreement between the two states and Ontario time to work.

"We are always looking for more collaborative, voluntary approaches to trying to solve these problems," Grether said. She said using a TMDL would be "like taking a sledgehammer when you might need a pencil."

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's campaign for voluntary farm measures—such as planting strips of vegetation between croplands and waterways to prevent erosion—is getting results, according to the agency's director, Jamie Clover Adams. She credited that approach with a sharp drop of phosphorus levels in the River Raisin in southeastern Michigan, a Lake Erie tributary.

Some scientists and environmental advocates contend such steps won't be enough to solve the algae problem unless all farms are required to participate.

Still, Michigan's impaired-water designation under the Clean Water Act is "a crucial and encouraging first step" because it makes a cleanup enforceable under federal law, said Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation.

"Today's action needs to be a catalyst for the U.S. EPA and states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana to act with urgency to craft and implement a pollution-reduction plan that protects our waters from ," Shriberg said.

Ohio, which has jurisdiction over a much larger section of the lake, has designated only shoreline waters and a small area near Toledo's water intake pipe as impaired.

A farm group said the designation was unnecessary and wouldn't solve the algae problem.

"Instead of encouraging constructive solutions, today's announcement sets the table for even more government mandates, largely driven by fringe groups out to dismantle Michigan agriculture," said Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association.

Explore further: Will Ohio's Lake Erie strategy work? Answers won't come soon

Related Stories

Will Ohio's Lake Erie strategy work? Answers won't come soon

June 5, 2016

Ohio's attempt at slowing down the toxic algae turning Lake Erie green hinges on a plan that some environmental groups say relies too much on voluntary programs and lacks the sense of urgency needed to thwart the growing ...

Feds: Lake Erie algae bloom in 2015 was largest on record

November 10, 2015

The algae bloom that spread across Lake Erie this summer was the largest on record and left behind a thick, paint-like scum that covered an area roughly the size of New York City, government scientists said Tuesday.

States agree to cut pollutants behind Lake Erie algae

June 12, 2015

Ohio and Michigan have agreed to sharply reduce phosphorus runoff blamed for a rash of harmful algae blooms on Lake Erie that have contaminated drinking water supplies and contributed to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish ...

Image: Algae bloom in Lake St. Clair

August 5, 2015

On July 28, 2015, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite captured images of algal blooms around the Great Lakes, visible as swirls of green in this image of Lake St. Clair and in western Lake Erie.

Researchers predict smaller harmful algae bloom on Lake Erie

July 7, 2016

Potentially toxic algae is expected to form again this summer in western Lake Erie but should be considerably less severe than the blooms that blanketed the lake and threatened drinking water supplies the previous two years, ...

Recommended for you

Sound waves reveal diamond cache deep in Earth's interior

July 16, 2018

There may be more than a quadrillion tons of diamond hidden in the Earth's interior, according to a new study from MIT and other universities. But the new results are unlikely to set off a diamond rush. The scientists estimate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.