Credit: Tom Archer

Lake Erie algal blooms, August 2011, along the southeast Lake Erie shore of Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada, 5 miles north of the international line.

The blooms returned in 2002. Many hoped the toxic sludge of algae that blanketed the western and central basins of Lake Erie was gone for good, yet the volume of smothering plant matter was growing steadily. Summers from 2008 to 2010 were bloom-heavy in the shallowest of the Great Lakes. “And then we got 2011,” says University of Toledo limnologist Thomas Bridgeman. Following the wettest spring on record, algae populations skyrocketed, choking nearly 200 kilometres of Ohio beach from Cleveland to Toledo. Much of it was microcystis, a poisonous strand of blue-green algae containing the toxin microcystin that can cause nausea and liver failure in mammals. It can also be lethal. The drinking water of 2.8 million Americans was tainted with microcystin, exceeding the World Health Organization’s safe consumption limit by 1,200 percent. Dead algae sank to the lake bottom where it ate huge quantities of Erie’s oxygen as it decomposed, fabricating dead zones where sustaining life was impossible.

Then things got bad. 

Southeast Lake Erie shore of Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada/Credit: Tom Archer

 

TOLEDO

A steady downpour in spring 2014 gave the first hint that a massive Erie bloom was imminent. It came in broad waves the colour of vomit, perching on Erie’s western basin at the mouth of the Maumee, a muddy Buckeye river infamous for ferrying algae’s primary food source into the lake. Once there, the bloom, feasting on phosphorus from the Maumee, settled above the water intake crib for the nearby City of Toledo. There was no wind. On August 2, workers at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant detected high concentrations of microcystin, though a more sophisticated water testing mechanism that could have pinpointed dangerous toxin levels was, at the time, still in progress. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency lacked any analytical procedure for dealing with microcystin. There were no rules.

Lake Erie algal bloom / Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Shortly after 1:00 am, representatives from the Collins plant got on the phone with Governor John Kasich. By 1:30 am, after emergency talks wrapped between Kasich, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins and the Ohio EPA, the mayor issued a drinking water ban for Toledo’s half-million residents: no showers, food preparation, brushing teeth or use at all by children or anyone with weakened immune systems. The story hit the 24-hour news cycle around 2:00 am; early iterations twisted the truth and told worried residents they shouldn’t even touch Toledo’s water. By 3:00 am, state troopers in helicopters were ferrying water samples to Cincinnati for further analysis.

More than 125,000 litres of drinking water were brought in by the National Guard to volunteers who transformed local high schools into distribution centres. Crowds gathered outside department stores to haul away shopping carts overflowing with bottled water. Toledo was paralytic: restaurants closed, hospitals cancelled non-essential surgeries, the zoo began using water reserves and monitoring animals for trauma. Three days later, assured that city water was potable, Mayor Collins sipped a glass of water at a press conference and lifted the ban. “I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal,” Collins told reporters: “But this is not going to be our new normal. We’re going to fix this.”

 

BLUE-GREEN

There’s nothing inherently dangerous about algal blooms. Beyond the grossness of wading through soupy waves at the beach or the smell of rotting garbage accompanying large patches of aging algae, the presence of it in large quantities is typically just another indicator that the warm days of summer are ending.

Algal Blooms Lake Erie / Credit: GLPF Staff

Algae is a microscopic, plant-like matter that occurs naturally in lakes, streams and ponds. It thrives in places where water is shallow, slow and warm. Many species of single-cell algae live in the Great Lakes where they constitute a crucial part of the aquatic food web: As producers, they’re food for fish, waterfowl and mussels that are eaten by higher-order predators. Much like a housecat, algae expand naturally in the presence of sunlight and lots of food. Blooms only become harmful when one type of algae, the blue-green variety, is prolific, but even that’s no guarantee that toxins will form. When they do, these blooms produce cell-, liver- and neurotoxins that pack a wallup: Muscle cramps, twitching, paralysis, and cardiac or respiratory failure can result from prolonged exposure to this type of cyanobacteria, that is, bacteria that can photosynthesize.

Like any living thing, algae needs food to survive and often thrives on a phosphorus-heavy diet. Phosphorus is found naturally throughout the basin in decaying plant matter, eroding soil and rocks. Kept in check, phosphorus plays an important role in ecosystem health. Problems arise in how frequently phosphorus is found in substances humans need—everything from fertilizers used to replace the phosphorus plants suck from the soil to detergents for washing clothes. When it’s done providing a useful service, phosphorus-laden waste like agricultural runoff settles in nearby waterways where it becomes food for algae, including the blue-green kind.

 

 

SYMMETRY

Past the bankrupt nuclear power plant that locals call “the cloud machine” and the endless rail lines whose nearby terminal chokes traffic sits the Collins Park water treatment plant, site of the 2014 shutdown. A sky-blue water tower stood in the central lawn beside an array of newly installed solar panels. This past April I toured drinking water flashpoints around Lake Erie with journalists from across America, part of a junket organized by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. On the bus that was our home for eight days, I turned to IJNR head Dave Spratt and nudged towards the beige Art Deco building behind him shielded by razor-wire topped fences. “That a prison?” I asked. “No,” Spratt said: “That’s the water plant.”

Collins Park water treatment plant, site of the 2014 shut-down / Credit: Andrew Reeves

Inside is pure noir fantasy. Squat control panels with rounded chrome knobs display steampunk gauges with needles pointing to measurements with obscure meanings. Beyond the control room lie vats with Lake Erie water in stages of treatment: here, wide pipes gush untreated water into tanks while there, massive white blades like a Mississippi paddle steamer churn away. It radiated balance. Perfectly matching control boxes stare at each other from across brick-lined hallways; in the basement, twin elbow-shaped steel pipes peak from the ground and jut quickly into adjacent rooms above a 70 million gallon underground reservoir. It’s a striking symmetry.

It’s not all architectural marvels, and in one such drab, windowless boardroom our group met Commissioner of Plant Operations Chuck Campbell and plant administrator Andrew McClure. Campbell spoke plainly about the historic role wastewater plants once played in Lake Erie’s infamous algal blooms. “In the 1970s, we were guilty,” he says: “We had phosphorus coming out the wazoo.” But times changed. These days he controls 98 percent of the phosphorus entering the Collins facility via 12 miles of 70-year-old pipes laid under farmed fields and into the lake. Up to 120 million gallons of water are exported to homes and businesses every day.

After the 2014 shutdown, new guidelines normally taking years to develop were drafted in just months. The Collins Park water treatment plant underwent a $500 million (U.S.) upgrade to algal treatment techniques and equipment. The city now has 21 data points at their disposal capable of reviewing water quality indicators from throughout the western basin. Meanwhile, the crisis and confusion following the 2014 fiasco confirmed that City Hall and the Collins plant needed to improve how they informed citizens of threats to their drinking water. Staff underwent media training. Beyond traditional press releases, text alerts and social media are ready for deployment. The model they’ve created to handle future algal blooms has been shared with city and regional governments across America and as far away as South Korea.

These days, each year seems to bring with it a new, unenviable record for the size or severity of Lake Erie’s algal blooms. There’s no reason to suspect 2017 will bring a break from the blooms that have worsened over the past decade. McClure says that Collins staff thought they had witnessed the worst bloom in 2010 before blooms in 2011 and the costly 2014 disaster blew those away. “That forced a shift in scale,” he says.

 

DEAD SEA

It’s hardly a new problem. The public woke up to Erie’s plight in the late 1960s when Time Magazine called it North America’s “Dead Sea.” The middle-class boom following the Second World War resulted in a rash of households installing automatic washing machines that relied on phosphate-heavy detergents. Soon soapsuds washed into Erie through ineffective wastewater treatment plants, coating shorelines in white foam 300 feet thick. Sixty-four million pounds of phosphorus were unceremoniously dumped; water quality tanked. “Each day,” Time wrote, “Detroit, Cleveland and 120 other municipalities fill Erie with 1.5 billion gallons of inadequately treated wastes.” The lake was “in danger of dying by suffocation.”

Cleveland waterfront, April 2017 / Credit: Andrew Reeves

Erie’s precarious state drove Ottawa and Washington to sign the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a bilateral policy that devoted its early attention to phosphorus reduction. America’s Clean Water Act, law by 1972, set hard targets for lakeside wastewater plants to reduce discharged phosphorus. Both countries also capped phosphates in household detergents responsible for 50 percent of the phosphates entering the Great Lakes.

Together, these reforms reduced phosphorus levels in the basin by two-thirds. It appeared the dramatic intervention had worked. Early targets for phosphorus reduction were largely reached by 1990 and the lake showed signs of rebounding. Fishers once again hauled in millions of pounds of walleye from Lake Erie, the Walleye Capital of the World. “By the mid-1980s,” notes the International Joint Commission, “the rapid recovery of Lake Erie was a globally-known success story.”

The euphoria was short lived. Beginning in the 1990s, algae levels crept upwards, despite the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spending tens of millions analyzing blooms and their environmental and human health impacts. Unlike previous efforts to halt phosphorus, curbing algal blooms would prove a more tortuous problem. Dissolved reactive phosphorus, a new type of chemical agent, doesn’t bind to soil as its precursors did but pools near the surface, making it easier for excess phosphorus to wash away. Zebra mussels, an invasive mussel introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1980s, began eating nontoxic algae and leaving room for toxic-laden cyanobacteria to thrive. Warmer winters created new challenges. Freezing temperatures once kept synthetic fertilizer pellets trapped; now, as grounds thaw sooner and spring rains become torrential, 1.1 of the 48 pounds of fertilizer applied per acre in the Maumee River basin vanish due to melt and rain.

Global lake temperatures are also rising. Analyzing a quarter century’s worth of data from 235 lakes representing half the world’s freshwater, researchers at Washington State University reported in 2015 that lake temperatures were increasing by 0.34°C per decade, a projection that could see 20 percent more algal blooms over the next century. “Large changes in our lakes are not only unavoidable,” says Illinois State geologist and lead author Catherine O’Reilly, “but are probably already happening.”

This image was acquired on 6 March 2010. Snow cover is evident across the land, and we can see ice build-up along some of the lakes’ edges. A green algal bloom is also visible in Lake Erie / Credit: European Space Agency

 

It became clear after 2014’s apocalyptic blooms that something had to change. Reducing nutrient inputs feeding blooms would be easier than reversing the trend of warming lakes. But with so much of the low-hanging fruit of phosphorus reduction picked four decades earlier, where would further reductions come from? “We are now at the levels of algal blooms...that we were at in the 1970s,” says University of Toledo professor Thomas Bridgeman: “We’re back to the bad old days.”

 

RUNOFF

In a squat, one-story federal building in Oak Harbor, our group shook off the rain. Shiftless ponds had settled into fields throughout this corner of northwestern Ohio; road-side ditches were running high. Hosting us that morning was a troop of men from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the local soil conservation office for Ottawa County. Beyond working with farmers, many were farmers themselves. But unlike many of their agricultural colleagues throughout the basin, these men had embraced the kind of change needed to save Erie. 

In 2016, the Western Lake Erie Basin Initiative from the USDA and Natural Resources Conservation Service began a three-year, $41 million (U.S.) program to inject science into watershed decision-making. NRCS water specialist Steve Davis tells us that future efforts will avoid adding unnecessary phosphorus to the land while trapping and controlling nutrient and sediment movement. The first step? Knowing what they’re dealing with. And to figure that out, 23 edge-of-field instruments have been installed to monitor agricultural runoff.

Phosphorus pellets / Credit: Andrew Reeves

Existing conservation efforts largely consist of dyed-in-the-wool methods like planting overwinter cover crops that release nutrients into the soil as they decompose. Newer approaches are becoming more—sophisticated. These days, among those practicing nutrient control, you’re as likely to see a farmer riding a $100,000 (U.S.), GPS-guided machine capable of injecting fertilizer pellets at the exact location they’re needed as you are to see rye stems decomposing with Spring’s arrival. 

Both systems are making headway. A recent NRCS report showed that voluntary conservation measures are active on 99 percent of cropland in the western basin. Computer modelling compared what impact doing nothing would have on Lake Erie versus the current conservation regime; NRCS discovered that annual sediment losses have been reduced by 9.1 million tonnes and total phosphorus by 75 percent, some 11.4 million pounds each year. Meanwhile, the amount that farmers are spending to conserve phosphorus grew from $208 million to $277 million (U.S.) annually, perhaps reflecting the fact that farm fields are diverse and no single technology or old-school approach will work for every farmer. Looking to the future, however, the NRCS note that “additional progress in nutrient and erosion control will depend on advanced precision technologies,” techniques involving “potential yield effects, zoned or gridded soil testing, and variable fertilizer rates” that can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus even more. The percentage of hectares where GPS helped map where fertilizer should be injected? From 2003 to 2006 alone it grew from 8 to 36 percent.

Steve Davis passed around a small plastic jar half-filled with beige pellets the size of cat food. The dry phosphorous in this container represents about 1.05 pounds, he says, the approximate amount of phosphorus that leaves each field en route to Lake Erie. At one pellet per square foot, it’s a miniscule amount that farmers now let slip from their fields.

But as Davis acknowledges, it’s a macro problem, not a micro one. Even with widespread adoption of any number of conservation measures, 800,000 cubic yards of phosphorus-laden sediment are still dumped in the Port of Toledo at the Maumee’s mouth. 

IJNR reporters interview Oak Harbor (Ohio) farmer, Mike Libben / Credit: Andrew Reeves

 

As our group headed to the nearby property of farmer Mike Libben, passing endless acres all planted in corn and soybeans, the scale of the problem became clear. Stretching from Michigan and Indiana into Ohio, millions of acres are under production for crops and livestock, each acre fertilized, each acre leaching phosphorus in infinitesimally small doses that pool together in the open lake. It may only be one pellet from each pound that’s leaving the land; but spread across millions of acres? That’s a lot of phosphorus.

Getting widespread buy-in is wearisome when fear and human behaviour are the biggest impediments. Some farmers, meanwhile, are just stubborn, Mike Libben says. Libben, who’s also the program administrator for the Ottawa Soil & Water Conservation District, tells us that he tries to lead by example within the community: Planting cover crops like rye in the winter, or mowing buffer strips near the small stream meandering through his property. Small measures that, combined across millions of acres, can make a difference should farmer’s agree to sign up. Josh Gerwin, Libben’s colleague and a fellow farmer, agreed that nudging his brethren towards sustainable farming is tough when finger pointing is rampant. “Farmers always like to blame wastewater treatment plants and lawn fertilizer and golf courses” for algal blooms, Gerwin said, “but that’s a miniscule part of the problem.”

6,000 MT

Federal governments have re-awoken to the dangers posed by toxic algae. Alongside former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced in February 2016 that both governments would reduce total phosphorus entering the western and central basins of Lake Erie and its tributaries by 40 percent. Such a move would ensure the annual load of phosphorus entering Lake Erie wouldn’t exceed 6,000 metric tons, a level that should keep blooms diluted enough to prevent toxic concentrations of cyanobacteria from forming. These reductions are separate from a 40 percent phosphorus reduction in Lake Erie’s western basin announced by Ohio, Michigan and Ontario in June 2015.

This NASA image (Oct 2011) reminds that any solution to Great Lakes algal bloom problems requires two nations to collaborate / Credit: NASA

 

Their objectives established, each country turned to figuring out how to meet that target. In March 2017, Canada and Ontario released their joint action plan, an overly bureaucratic file heavy on plans to “strengthen decision-making tools.” But hidden amongst the jargon is a double-barrelled approach to reducing phosphorus loading in the Great Lakes from two crucial culprits: urban areas and agriculture. Cities with sewage treatment plants processing more than 3.78 million litres/day could soon reckon with a legal effluent discharge limit of 0.5 milligrams/litre of total phosphorus. Some plants will need upgrading, both governments realize, as will pipes for handling sewage and stormwater. Green infrastructure will also play a role.

Yet no role is greater than that of agriculture. That much they do acknowledge. But the governments appear to have lost their nerve in addressing how agriculture will spearhead efforts to curb future blooms. Instead of concrete recommendations akin to what’s prescribed for suppressing urban runoff, Canada and Ontario offer a vague platter of promises to “ensure public land is managed to minimize phosphorus losses” or to continue their support for existing (and voluntary) phosphorus management programs like the Canadian Federal Government’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship action plan. It’s a conciliatory approach to a problem that peacekeeping has failed to solve. 

Even so, the lion’s share of phosphorus reduction must come from the United States if blue-green blooms will be kept in check. McKenna’s February reduction target commits Canada to offloading no more than 212 metric tons annually, largely from the Thames River and Leamington area. American emissions, centred on the Maumee and Sandusky watersheds, cannot total more than 3,316 metric tons to hit the 6,000 MT sweet spot. Sandra George, nutrient issues coordinator with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said in March that the reduction disparity stemmed largely from differences in tributaries; twice as many feed into Erie from America than from Canada.

Stemming the flow of phosphorus into one of the largest freshwater bodies on the planet is a complex problem, George says. Why would the solutions be simple? 

 

LEGACY

Any policy for reducing phosphorus leaching into the Great Lakes has to contend with an uncomfortable fact: We’ve already added a lot of phosphorus to farmland throughout the watershed. I mean a lot. In the Maumee watershed alone, one estimate suggests that the top 8 inches of soil contains 4 million tonnes of legacy phosphorus. 

In March 2015, Agriculture Canada researcher Tiequan Zhang told a farmers conference that 75 percent of provincial cropland had high or excessively high amounts of phosphorus already locked in the earth. “It will take about 25 to 30 years to go to a normal level in which phosphorus might need to be added and would not cause an environmental problem,” Zhang says.

In the Maumee watershed alone, one estimate suggests that the top 8 inches of soil contains 4 million tonnes of legacy phosphorus. /                       Credit: Andrew Reeves

 

Legacy phosphorus complicates any conservation plan, but climate change may exacerbate the problem to ruinous levels. Erie’s western basin has experienced higher-than-average rainfall over the past quarter century: storms have intensified. Gail Hesse, Great Lakes water program director with the National Wildlife Federation, was the lone environmental voice at our USDA talk. Extreme weather events precipitated by climate change flitted throughout Hesse’s presentation without climate change ever being mentioned directly. So I asked.

Hesse was cagey, suggesting that climate models cannot be easily applied to a regional watershed; yet heavy rains and more precipitation are likely for Ohio, she says, and the rest of the basin. From March to June, these storms are perfect catalysts to usher phosphorus from farmer’s fields into the Maumee River and on to Lake Erie. Cover crops and GPS-guided injection sites can reduce new phosphorus added to the soil, but conservation efforts curbing runoff can do nothing about legacy nutrients already locked in soil that’s drowning in excess fertilizer, sown by past generations.

 

INTRACTABLE

Hoping governments will strengthen weak policies without intense public pressure is naive. Yet getting the public onside with solutions that smell of nanny-state interference is tricky, especially when the source of Lake Erie’s churning blooms is mysterious to many. Twelve-hundred southwestern Ontario residents were polled in November 2015 on behalf of the Canadian Freshwater Alliance to gauge their knowledge of nutrient loading in Lake Erie. Those Ontarians polled placed a high value on the Great Lakes as a resource, yet few were optimistic about Erie’s future. Two-thirds felt water quality was good or excellent 25 years ago, but only one-third believe that remains true. Top-of-mind associations with Lake Erie aren’t flattering: “Fishing” and “swimming” came to some minds, but not as often as words like “dirty”, “polluted” and “algae.” A majority of Lake Erie residents have lost faith that Ontario’s environmental laws are adequate to protect the lake from future pollution.

Top-of-mind associations with Lake Erie aren’t flattering: “Fishing” and “swimming” came to some minds, but not as often as words like “dirty”, “polluted” and “algae.” / Credit: Tom Archer

 

The research makes plain that raising awareness of algal blooms needs amplifying. Fifty percent of Ontarians polled claimed they had no idea what caused cyanobacteria blooms and, when pressed, believed untreated sewage was the primary contributor to Lake Erie’s neverending algae trouble. Their thinking is stuck in the 1970s. 

These days, the real challenge to limiting algal blooms may be gathering the political capital to make it happen. Controlling excess algae in the Great Lakes is within our power, says Steve Carpenter from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology; yet significant investments are needed to reduce farm-based phosphorus runoff. But this has proven almost impossible around the world, given how ungovernable curtailing runoff has become both institutionally and politically. “We have failed to find a mix of incentives and regulations that produces healthy food and water at the same time,” he says.

Ohio farmer Josh Gerwin had told reporters that voluntary measures are preferable to telling farmers how to manage their crops. Yet the time may come when governments have to penalize farmers for not doing all they can to keep phosphorous locked in the soil, he says. Expect the uproar to reverberate throughout the basin. Because for every Gerwin or Mike Libben there’s a dozen other farmers whose land is situated further from Erie, further from the shocking visual of choking green algae, who either don’t know their land management decisions are destroying beaches and tourism dollars in another part of the state or don’t care. Anecdotally, Libben maintains that it’s harder to get farmers to buy into phosphorus-locking methods the further they are from the waterfront. “My farm is less than three miles from Lake Erie,” he says: “It’s not far for ditch water to move into the lake.” Our shared watershed is huge, and that distance often supports the misconception that how I behave here has no repercussions elsewhere.

“Sediment is currently swirling in #LakeErie,” they wrote, as brown water choked with phosphorous-laden dirt blurred the distinction between land and lake like an ominous fog: “Flow is high in the Maumee River."

A macabre silver lining is that our failure in the Great Lakes to slay the nutrient runoff dragon isn’t unique. “Agricultural phosphorus pollution has proven to be intractable everywhere in the world,” Carpenter says. “We do not at this time have institutions capable of controlling agricultural phosphorus.” 

The complexity of nutrient loading, made worse by agriculture and warming lakes, reaffirms the importance of farmers working voluntarily alongside government and environmentalists to tackle this monster of a problem. But if that doesn’t work, relying on voluntary measures in our agriculture sector may no longer suffice.

Still, a first step towards solving Erie’s neverending algae crisis is finding common ground on how the waterbody should be governed. Even here we struggle. This past spring, a coalition of environmental groups anchored by the Alliance for the Great Lakes and National Wildlife Federation sued Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt over an EPA classification. Specifically, they want the Agency to list Erie’s western basin as “impaired”, a designation that environmentalists believe could wrench open federal wallets and better protect the waterway from algal blooms. Michigan has spearheaded the call to reclassify Erie’s western basin, a move the EPA has already approved. Yet since the Obama Administration, the Agency has refused to greenlight the appeal, likely because Ohio Governor John Kasich, he who fielded that 1:00 am phone call from anxious Toledo officials in 2014, feels the classification would deter business.

Maumee bay showing the mixing zone between the western basin and the Maumee River / Credit: Satelytics 

Nature rolls on. In the third week of April, 2017, NOAA researchers tweeted a striking satellite photo.

“Sediment is currently swirling in #LakeErie,” they wrote, as brown water choked with phosphorous-laden dirt blurred the distinction between land and lake like an ominous fog: “Flow is high in the Maumee River."

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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