Algal bloom on Lake Erie

Algal bloom on Lake Erie

Attack of the Killer Algae

How fertilizer is feeding the beast.

roving pack of journalists shake off the rain in a squat, one-story federal building in Oak Harbor, Ohio. Hosting us journalists is a troop from the US Department of Agriculture. Beyond working with farmers, most are farmers themselves. But unlike many of their agricultural colleagues, these men embrace the kind of wholesale change needed to save Lake Erie.

roving pack of journalists shake off the rain in a squat, one-story federal building in Oak Harbor, Ohio. Hosting us journalists is a troop from the US Department of Agriculture. Beyond working with farmers, most are farmers themselves. But unlike many of their agricultural colleagues, these men embrace the kind of wholesale change needed to save Lake Erie.

Existing conservation efforts consist of dyed-in-the-wool methods like planting overwinter cover crops. Yet spurred on by a $41 million (US) government program to inject science into watershed decision making, newer approaches are becoming more sophisticated. These days farmers can ride $100,000 (US), GPS-guided machines capable of injecting fertilizer into the soil at the exact location needed, while two-dozen edge-of-field instruments monitor runoff.

Both approaches to saving the lake, old and new, are making headway. A recent government report shows that small-scale, voluntary conservation measures are active on 99 percent of cropland in Lake Erie’s western basin. Steve Davis, a water specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, passes around a jar half-full of beige pellets like BBs. This jar of dry phosphorous weighs about 1.05 pounds (476 grams), he says, roughly total to the amount of phosphorus draining from each field to Lake Erie each year. I look again at the jar: at one pellet per square foot lost, it’s a tiny amount farmers let slip away.

But the scale of nutrient loading reveals itself as we drive past endless hectares of corn and soybeans. From Michigan to Ohio, tens of millions of hectares are producing crops and livestock, each fertilized and leaching phosphorus in infinitesimal doses that pool in the lake. Ohio alone features 5.6 million hectares (14 million acres) of farmland containing 75,000 hobby farms and factory operations. Agriculture is the largest industry in the Buckeye State, worth $105 billion annually.

The conservation efforts undertaken throughout the basin to curb farm runoff are part of a bigger problem. Even with widespread adoption of conservation measures, 800,000 cubic yards (about 612 million litres) of phosphorus-laden sediment are dumped into Lake Erie from the Maumee River flowing through Ohio’s breadbasket. The Maumee is one culprit among many.

It may only be one pound leaving each farm; but spread across a parcel of land the size of Nova Scotia? That’s a lot of phosphorus.

Trouble with blooms

Algae is microscopic, plant-like matter that occurs naturally in lakes and ponds. It thrives where shallow, slow and warm water is abundant. 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 eaten by top-tier predators.

Even with conservation efforts to curb runoff, 612 million litres of phosphorus-laden sediment are dumped into the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie at Toledo, Ohio. Sunlight and these excessive amounts of phosphorus feed and multiply algae populations. Algae blooms are the green parts of the lake above. And the Maummee is just one culprit among many. – Illustration by Michigan Sea Grant

It’s only with an excess of food and sunlight that algae populations soar, blanketing shorelines in thick, soupy green sludge. And it’s only when one variety of algae – a blue-green kind – is prolific that blooms can become dangerous, even lethal. Under the right circumstances, cell, liver and neuro-toxins known as cyanotoxins are present in the blooms, causing muscle cramps, paralysis, cardiac and respiratory failure in mammals, including humans.

Blooms feast on phosphorus. Phosphorus is found naturally throughout the Great Lakes in decaying plant matter and eroding soil. Kept in check, it plays an important role in ecosystem health. Yet it’s frequently found in substances humans use – from fertilizers to detergents for washing clothes. When it’s spent, phosphorus-laden waste from runoff settles in waterways; there, it finds new life as algae food.

Great Lakes farming

Agriculture is big business in the Great Lakes region. In Ontario, one third of the land within the watershed, the catchment area where all tributary rivers are flowing into the Great Lakes, underpins a $9.1 billion industry. This value balloons to $32.5 billion when food processing (Ontario’s third largest manufacturing sector) is included. Roughly 63,000 farms and production facilities operate here, employing 1.5 million people.

Virtually all of Ontario’s agricultural sector sits within the Great Lakes basin. Yet it’s not just farmers who depend on the lake’s clean water, but anyone who enjoys seasonal bounties of strawberries, asparagus, corn or apples. And meat. Almost five million hogs were raised in Ontario in 2012, generating $5.6 billion in revenue. From hatcheries and producers to processors, poultry employs 20,000 people in the province, creating $3.25 billion in economic activity from 200 million chickens slaughtered annually. Ontario is far and away the largest user of Great Lakes water on a day-to-day basis, whether hydroelectric power generation is included or not. A 2013 report for the Great Lakes Commission found that while agriculture uses less than one percent of Ontario’s total daily water usage, it relies on 416 million litres of Great Lakes water every day.

So the Great Lakes aren’t just the water we drink – they’re the food we eat.

That’s a problem when water is threatened. Nicknamed North America’s “Dead Sea” by Time magazine in the 1960s, the middle-class boom following the Second World War created a rash of households buying washing machines requiring phosphate-heavy detergents. Soapsuds washed into Lake Erie through ineffective wastewater treatment plants, coating shorelines in foam 300 feet thick. Water quality tanked as 5.7 billion litres of waste wound up in Lake Erie.

Erie’s precarious state drove Ottawa and Washington to sign the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, a bilateral policy devoted early on to phosphorus reduction. Both countries also capped phosphates in household detergents responsible for half the phosphates entering the Great Lakes. Together, these reforms reduced the basin’s phosphorus levels by two-thirds, leading the International Joint Commission to call the lake’s “rapid recovery” a “globally known success story.”

The success didn’t last. A steady downpour in spring 2014 suggested a massive bloom was imminent, which came in waves the colour of vomit, sitting on Erie’s western basin. The bloom, munching on phosphorus from the nearby Maumee, settled above the water intake pipe for Toledo. On August 2, city officials detected high concentrations of microcystin (a liver toxin produced by cyanobacteria) and banned drinking city water.

PHOTO: Tom Archer

Approximately 125,000 litres of bottled water were trucked in by the National Guard. Crowds gathered outside grocery stores, hauling away carts overflowing with shrink-wrapped H2O. Toledo was paralytic: restaurants closed, hospitals cancelled non-essential surgeries, the zoo began monitoring animals for trauma. Three days later, assured that Toledo’s water was potable, the mayor sipped city 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.”

Reducing the phosphorous load

In late 2015, Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) brought together pork producers, grain growers, greenhouse growers and cattle farmers to talk. The topic was phosphorus.

Each group OMAFRA consulted was attempting to lighten their phosphorus load. All struggled. In 2012, Ontario’s Environment Ministry reported that 65 percent of vegetable greenhouse operators near Leamington were polluting water bodies flowing into Erie with phosphorus and copper at levels exceeding Canadian water quality standards.

It’s an intergenerational problem. For decades, farmers throughout the Great Lakes have stuffed their soils with phosphorus. In March 2015, Agriculture Canada researcher TieQuan Zhang told a farming 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,” Zhang said.

Governments, farmers and cities must look on the farm and beyond for answers. The cornerstone of our food system is at stake.”

Change was badly needed, and those gathered at the OMAFRA talk hoped it would spark an allied effort to combat nutrient loading. Grow Ontario Together was born. “Having a collective voice was able to resonate better with society and government”, says George Gilvesy, chair of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers. In late 2015, Gilvesy met with growers to discuss reducing phosphorous, talks that highlighted the need for better infrastructure to connect far-flung greenhouses to municipal sewage plants. “We hooked up 144 hectares to the Kingsville sewer system,” he says, acreage that’s now better able to treat greenhouse waste. Another 101 hectares are slotted for hook-up.

Solving phosphorus runoff can also bolster industry growth. Larger sewer systems will expand the Leamington-Kingsville greenhouse corridor, Gilvesy says, stimulating $500 to $700 million in economic expansion – farms that could, unless properly hooked up to municipal wastewater systems, exacerbate the problem. Pork farmers, meanwhile, continued reducing phosphorus from feed and are moving away from spreading manure in winter. Small producers have joined large operators in preparing nutrient management plans to grasp how phosphorus moves in, through and off their farms, Ontario Pork chair Amy Cronin says.

Grow Ontario Together resembles another industry-based initiative. American Great Lakes farmers turned to agricultural feed producer and educator United Suppliers for assistance in 2014. United formed a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund to help farmers reduce phosphorus via on-farm data trials of runoff reduction techniques, increases in nutrient efficiency, and rebuilding soil health. Everything was up for discussion. Known as SUSTAIN, the program hopes to curb fertilizer loss on four million hectares by 2020. “It’s a great business opportunity,” said United Suppliers VP Matt Carstens, and “the right thing to do.”

Action and governance

Recognizing the danger of toxic algae, US Environmental Protection Agency officials along with Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, announced in February 2016 that both governments would reduce phosphorus entering the western and central basins of Lake Erie by 40 percent. This would keep annual fertilizer entering Erie from exceeding 6,000 metric tonnes, a level that should prevent blue-green algae from concentrating. The target commits Canada to offloading only 212 tonnes annually, mostly from the Thames River and Leamington area. American emissions, centred in Ohio, must remain below 3,316 tonnes.

Algae bloom on the southeast Lake Erie shore of Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada. The effectiveness of small-scale conservation efforts and governmental regulatory shifts is unclear as long as reducing nutrient runoff from farms remains voluntary. PHOTO: Tom Archer

As if halting nutrient loading from hog farms, corn fields and greenhouses isn’t complicated enough, the problem is exacerbated by intractable global forces. Invasive species like zebra mussels manipulate aquatic ecosystems in ways that increase the size and toxicity of harmful blooms. Warming lake temperatures, brought on by climate change, are creating ideal environments for blue-green algae to thrive. Farming is just one part of the problem – but it’s also the largest. Invasive species and warming lakes pale in comparison to the impacts farm practices have on freshwater waterways throughout the Great Lakes where the problem is acute. “Over 50 percent of land in the Erie basin is corn and soybeans,” says Gail Hesse from the National Wildlife Federation: “This is where change needs to happen.”

Yet the effectiveness of small-scale conservation efforts and governmental regulatory shifts is unclear as long as reducing nutrient runoff from farms remains voluntary. Fear is the biggest impediment to widespread buy-in, says Oak Harbor farmer Mike Libben. Libben tries to lead by example within his community. He plants winter cover crops like rye and mows buffer strips near a stream meandering through his property – small measures that, combined across hundreds of thousands of hectares, could make a difference. Another Ohio farmer, Josh Gerwin, says that nudging his comrades towards sustainable farming is difficult when finger pointing is rampant. “Farmers always like to blame wastewater treatment plants and golf courses” for algal blooms, he says: “But that’s a miniscule part of the problem.”

Voluntary measures are preferable to telling farmers how to manage their land, Gerwin says, yet the time may come when governments have to penalize farmers for not doing more to lock in phosphorous. Expect the uproar to reverberate widely. Because for every Gerwin or Libben, there’s a dozen other farmers situated further from Lake Erie who either don’t know or don’t care that their decisions are damaging water quality, threatening tourism dollars and ultimately their own livelihoods by imperilling the future of food in the Great Lakes region. This shared watershed is huge; distance can support the misconception that how one behaves here has no repercussions elsewhere.

As valuable as private sector efforts like Grow Ontario Together are in affecting change, the hard part is governance. Drafting nutrient management plans and diverting phosphorus-laden waste into municipal sewage systems is a good start, but these voluntary measures can accomplish only so much. Solving our phosphorus problem to protect the Great Lakes, our drinking water and our food supply will cost money. Yet investments in sustainability often stimulate greater business opportunities, as the leaders of Grow Ontario Together and SUSTAIN both attest. Governments, farmers and cities must look on the farm and beyond for answers. The cornerstone of our food system is at stake.

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.