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Fighting Ohio's Algae Problem


Persistent toxic algae blooms are wreaking havoc on Ohio's multi-billion dollar lake tourism industry. Now elected officials and state agencies are fighting back with new tools to better help them monitor the blooms and reduce the nutrients feeding them from Ohio farms and cities. But the battle isn't over yet. *********

Two years ago, a record-breaking toxic algae bloom formed in western Lake Erie and floated east. It coated harbors and shorelines in the Lake Erie Islands, even drinking water intakes in Cleveland. Last year’s bloom was nowhere near as bad, but toxic algae is still having a major impact on the Lake Erie tourism economy. Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, says he’s no longer bringing his boat to Cleveland for the fall fishing season.

In Cleveland, that bloom was so bad, I remember one day taking my customers out to try to find clean water. And I went 14-miles straight north and never got out of it. And thick. Not just, you’d see a little bit. No. This was feet thick, slowing the boat down. I couldn’t fish ‘em, I had to take them back to shore.

Unger says that day alone he lost more than a thousand-dollars, along with six customers who likely won’t be back. And that story is being repeated across the eight counties of the Ohio Lake Erie shore, where tourism brings in $11.5 billion a year. This July, at Ohio State University’s Stone Lab in Put-in-Bay, state agency chiefs laid out new plans and tools they’re using to combat the algae. "What are we doing, what’s Ohio EPA been doing - and, oh, by the way, we’ve not been sitting on our hands," says Scott Nally, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Nally says his department has been working with sewer districts in Ohio and Michigan, trying to prioritize projects that would reduce the flow of nutrients that feed the algae blooms from city wastewater plants. He says there’s also a new program that would let farmers, considered non-point source polluters, trade credits for nutrient cutbacks that cities make from point-sources like outfall pipes. "Ohio has rules in place now, so that I can incorporate nutrient trading between non-point and point sources, to be able to give cities credit for that," Nally says. Nally has also revived the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force, which three years ago identified Northwest Ohio farms along the Maumee River as the primary source of the phosphorus fertilizers giving birth to recurring algae blooms. Gail Hesse, head of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission and leader of the task force, says her group has now come up with specific reductions that need to be made.

The recommended target is 150 tons. And so that overall, a 41-percent reduction from the average is what we’re seeking to achieve.

Hesse says the recent average of phosphorus from farms and other sources is 256-tons. So there’s still a big gap between what’s coming into the lake and the reductions needed to curb the algae. Hesse believes that with help from farmers, many of whom were initially resistant to being blamed for the blooms, the algae problem can be solved. "We have gotten to the point where we’re past the denial and the finger-pointing and really, it’s, we’re all in this together. Everybody wants to find the right solution as to what will make a difference," she says.

Another potential tool in Ohio’s algae-fighting efforts is Senate Bill 150, a ground-breaking piece of legislation that would, for the first time, give the Ohio Department of Natural Resources the power to cite farmers for polluting the lake. Legislators are getting feedback on that bill from agricultural communities this summer. In the meantime, intensive scientific monitoring of the Lake Erie algae blooms continues. "And this is called an integrated tube sampler, going to lower it down to two meters...and here’s our water sample." At Ohio State’s Stone Lab, Justin Chaffin is demonstrating how he’s sampling Put-in-Bay for signs of toxic algae. Chaffin is head of the university’s new water quality research lab, which just opened this year. Along with Heidelberg University and the University of Toledo, he’ll be testing water samples being taken from across the lake this summer, to see how algae blooms respond to any reductions in nutrients. It’s this testing that will ultimately determine whether the fight against algae succeeds or fails. Ohio EPA chief Scott Nally says, as long as he’s in charge, the monitoring will continue. "Unfortunately, I’m locked into budget cycles, so at least for two years." There’s an additional $600,000 for lake monitoring in the new state budget. But there’s also a looming Congressional battle over federal funding for the Great Lakes, some of which goes to pay for Lake Erie monitoring. And no one can predict how long it will take before Lake Erie’s algae problem is licked. Karen Schaefer's series on Northeast Ohio water quality - Drink, Fish, Swim – is supported by a grant from the Burning River Foundation.