Harmful Algae Blooms Start in Lake Erie; Bad Year Predicted for Western Basin

  • The 2011 algal bloom in Lake Erie was the worst in decades. Photo: Courtesy MERIS/NASA; processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and research partners predict a significant harmful algae bloom in the lake this year.  The blooms occur when algae that are normally present grow like crazy. The good news is that it’s not expected to be as bad as the massive 2011 bloom, which covered about 2,000 square miles or one-sixth of the lake by the time it peaked that October.

As Jeff Reutter, director of the Stone Lab in the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, told a group of journalists last week: "Depending on how you wanna make this sound, only a fifth of what it was in 2011 or twice as bad as it was in 2012. That’s right where it’s at."

If you’re in the eastern part of Lake Erie, you may not even see any of the blue-green slime.  That’s because the algae is largely expected to be confined to the western basin of the lake, closer to the Ohio/Michigan border. Where is all this slime coming from? Farm runoff—loaded with excess phosphorus from fertilizer—is the main culprit. Another is sewage overflow from outdated sewer systems.

And it turns out, what Congress decides to do with this year’s Farm Bill could make a difference long-term.  Scott Swinton, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University, says programs in the bill help farmers use techniques that can help cut down on the algae blooms. But these programs face the budget ax.

“Both House and Senate Farm Bill drafts would cut conservation funding authorization levels," Swinton said. "These have dropped the ceiling on the amount that could be authorized for conservation.”

Swinton’s working with an engineering firm to find cutting edge ways to help farmers better drain lands fertilized with phosphorus, and determine how to deal with other contributors to algae blooms. But there are other concerns when it comes to Lake Erie algae—big rainstorms predicted to become more frequent with climate change could worsen the algae problem. In the short-term, this year’s algae bloom could dampen the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie when floods of tourists are expected to arrive.