University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor(s): Jim Garrett, Molly Klaisner
Lake Erie's Biggest Problem: Harmful Algae Blooms
Lake Erie's Biggest Problem: Harmful Algae Blooms
As Oliver Arnold woke up in his house in Toledo on Saturday morning, he saw the news that officials had issued a water ban on Toledo tap water. Nearly half a million people were expected to be without water for days. Arnold thought, How am I going to wash my children? Where am I going to find water for them tomorrow? As a father of six children, he desired to take care of his children and wanted the best for them. This Saturday, however, he was unable to provide them with water, the most basic human need ("Toledo mayor lifts drinking water ban affecting 400,000 residents"). What was the cause of Arnold's and so many others' water quality problems? Why was Arnold not able to provide water for his children? The answer is harmful algae blooms.
Lake Erie is toxic. After fertilizer runoff enters Lake Erie through the Maumee River, blue-green algae feed off the phosphorus-filled fertilizer. Since the increase in fertilizer usage beginning in the early 2000s, the algae in the lake have been thriving off the phosphorus, creating harmful algae blooms that cover the lake in green filth (Patel and Parshina-Kottas). Not only is the algae ugly, but it is also harmful to human and marine health, impacting water quality and the fishing industry (Briscoe). While some farmers argue that they are attempting to reduce fertilizer runoff, Lake Erie's harmful algae blooms are mainly a result of the fertilizer runoff that originates in farmland in western Ohio and enters Lake Erie through rivers, such as the Maumee River (Wines). However, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency can take direct action to limit or even eradicate algae blooms by monetarily incentivizing farmers to reduce fertilizer usage and compensating farmers for investing in storm drainage and buffers between fields and rivers. Meanwhile, universities and organizations, such as the University of Akron, can help solve the problem by pinpointing the main sources of fertilizer runoff and limiting fertilizer runoff at these sources.
Ever since the early 2000s, harmful algae blooms have become widespread in Lake Erie due to the fertilizer that enters Lake Erie through the Maumee River. The process of fertilizer entering Lake Erie begins in the farmlands of western Ohio. In these farmlands, farmers plant 55% of fields on unplowed soil. They then pour 48 pounds of liquid fertilizer, made of 14% animal waste and 86% fertilizer pellets, on each acre of farmland (Wines). These unplowed fields, however, are not able to soak up as much fertilizer as plowed fields would be able to absorb. When precipitation occurs, rain and melted snow pick up approximately 1.1 pounds of fertilizer from each acre of farmland, and this fertilizer runoff ends up in the Maumee River and eventually Lake Erie (Wines). Additionally, heavy rain events, which have become more common due to climate change, pick up more fertilizer from farmland. The Maumee River carries the fertilizer into Lake Erie, where the blue-green algae feed off nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients that are abundant in fertilizer and animal waste (Fritz). By feeding off the fertilizer that originates in the farmland of western Ohio and ends up in Lake Erie through runoff, algae have been able to thrive in Lake Erie.
Algae blooms increase in size and severity in Lake Erie starting in the 2000s, which was when the amount of fertilizer used on farmland also increased. In 2011, the algae blooms reached a severity index (measuring the amount of biomass over a 30-day period) of 10, the highest index ever recorded in Lake Erie (Patel and Parshina-Kottas). The algae covered over 120 miles of Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland. According to Michael Wines of The New York Times, "That summer's algae bloom… produced lake-water concentrations of microcystin, a liver toxin, that were 1,200 times World Health Organization limits, tainting the drinking water for 2.8 million consumers." In 2014, the severity index of the algae blooms reached a new high, with an index of 10.5. This time, officials issued a ban on drinking water in Toledo due to the dangers of the microcystin produced by the algae, affecting nearly 500,000 people (Fritz). This increase in harmful algae blooms has been caused by the increase in the amount of phosphorus in Lake Erie, which has more than doubled in the span of 20 years. In 1995, approximately 2 metric tons of phosphorus were dissolved in Lake Erie; in 2015, there were nearly 5 metric tons (Patel and Parshina-Kottas). In the future, Lake Erie is on pace to dissolve more phosphorus, allowing algae blooms to become even more widespread.
Furthermore, harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie have created problems for human and marine health, which has negatively impacted water quality and the fishing industry. In Lake Erie, the microcystin produced by the blue-green algae blooms can cause "stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, and fever" when swallowed (Fritz). The microcystin produced by the algae contaminates the quality of drinking water. In 2014, the algae blooms were so severe that officials issued a water ban on Toledo (Fritz). Nearly 500,000 people did not have access to tap water for three days due to the microcystin in the water. Meanwhile, the harmful algae blooms have also harmed marine health, impacting the fishing industries and businesses. When the blue-green algae in Lake Erie die, their remains settle to the bottom of the lake, a process that deprives the deeper waters of oxygen. Experiencing a lack of oxygen, the Lake Erie cold-water fish are forced to either swim upward to warmer, oxygenated waters or to migrate to other lakes where oxygen is available (Briscoe). Both of these options are bad for the Lake Erie fishing industry; warmer waters make it difficult for cold-water fish to survive, while fish migration impedes fishermen's access to fish. Dean Koch, a commercial fisherman, has experienced this problem firsthand. Years ago, he was profiting off yellow perch, selling 8-12 million fish every year. This year, he says, "'We quit fishing for yellow perch because we couldn't make any money — there wasn't enough. They must've migrated to Canada'" (Briscoe). Lake Erie, which used to be a prime spot for fishing, has lost much of its fish supply to migration due to the algae blooms, impacting fishermen like Dean Koch. Not only have the algae been a problem for commercial fishermen, but they have also negatively impacted recreational fishing in Lake Erie. Due to the health risks the algae pose, people have been less eager to fish in the lake. According to Tony Briscoe of The Chicago Tribune, a study conducted by the Ohio State University estimated that the 2017 algae bloom in Lake Erie resulted in economic losses of approximately $5.6 million, with fishing sales down 10-13% in 2017. The health risks of microcystin have discouraged people from getting fishing licenses, which has resulted in fewer fishing license sales and economic losses. As algae blooms have increased in frequency and severity, they have negatively impacted human and fish health, worsening water quality and hurting the fishing economy of Lake Erie.
While little action has been taken so far, the most feasible method of eradicating harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie involves the reduction of fertilizer runoff, which can be accomplished by incentivizing farmers to reduce their fertilizer usage, repaying farmers that implement buffers and drainage systems, and removing fertilizer runoff at its source. While it is clear that the solution to algae blooms involves reducing fertilizer runoff and phosphorus levels, it remains unclear exactly how farmers can reduce fertilizer usage, as farmers rely heavily on fertilizer to improve their harvest. Through the H2Ohio program, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has worked on reducing fertilizer usage by implementing "total maximum daily load," which reduces fertilizer usage and limits the amount of phosphorus that can enter Lake Erie through fertilizer runoff (Krouse). The H2Ohio program has offered financial incentives to farmers that reduce their fertilizer usage. As of 2022, 2,400 farmers in Ohio have enrolled in this program (Krouse). Meanwhile, the H2Ohio program has also invested $172 million into compensating farmers for creating storm drainage systems and buffers between fields and rivers. These systems prevent fertilizer runoff from being able to travel from fields to rivers. So far, 40% of farmers in western Ohio have enrolled in this program (Cooley). Finally, outside organizations, such as the University of Akron, have also attempted to solve the problem. The University of Akron is developing "a device that uses shallow subsurface soil spectroscopy technology to help pinpoint the source of the nutrient runoff that contributes to the harmful algae blooms" (Knisely). The goal of this device is to provide maps of the highest phosphorus levels in the runoff across Ohio. In the future, these maps can be used to eliminate phosphorus at the lands where levels are highest (Knisely). To reach their goal of reducing phosphorus levels in Lake Erie by 40% as compared to 2008 levels by 2025, Ohio must find a way to limit fertilizer runoff. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency can incentivize less fertilizer usage and compensate farmers that implement buffers and drainage, while the University of Akron can pinpoint the main farmlands with high phosphorus levels to reduce fertilizer runoff.
While fertilizer runoff from the farmland in western Ohio is the main cause of algae blooms in Lake Erie, some farmers continue to argue that algae blooms remain despite their best efforts. Farmer Ron Schimming, who owns 400 acres of farmland six miles south of Lake Erie, states, "'They shouldn't be placing all the blame onto us'" (Tribble). Schimming describes how he has made efforts by using minimal fertilizer, resulting in little fertilizer lost to runoff. A study conducted by Wired supports Schimming's claims, finding that only 2% of applied fertilizer is lost to runoff (Pearson). However, individual farmers do not make up the whole problem; the impact of all fertilizer usage is what results in algae blooms. The Maumee River Watershed, which contributes to over 85% of fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie, contains over 3 million acres of farmland (Tuson). Even though only 2% of fertilizer enters Lake Erie through fertilizer runoff, 48 pounds of fertilizer are used on each of the approximately 3 million acres of farmland in the Maumee River Basin, adding up to roughly 3 million pounds of phosphorus-rich fertilizer entering Lake Erie every year (Wines). Even if only 2% of fertilizer is lost to runoff, the combined impact is allowing algae blooms to persist. If farmers do not bear the blame, algae blooms will continue to destroy Lake Erie. To reduce fertilizer runoff, farmers must be held accountable, and their habits must change.
In conclusion, Lake Erie's algae blooms need to be eradicated. Not only do they pose risks to health (Fritz), but they also impact the fishing industry and recreational fishing in Lake Erie (Briscoe). To limit algae blooms, fertilizer runoff — whose phosphorus is the main cause of algae blooms — must be controlled, specifically the fertilizer runoff that originates in the farmland of western Ohio and enters Lake Erie through the Maumee River. If fertilizer runoff levels are not reduced, algae blooms will continue to plague Lake Erie, as well as human health and the economy in the process (Wines). While Ohio has not been able to reduce fertilizer runoff yet, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency can still take steps to control runoff. This goal will most practically be accomplished by monetarily incentivizing farmers to reduce fertilizer usage (Krouse) and compensating them to build buffers and drainage systems between fields and rivers (Cooley). Additionally, the University of Akron has tried to determine the rivers and streams in the Maumee River Watershed where phosphorus levels are highest. In the future, this mapping will allow for the reduction of fertilizer runoff at those sources, which contribute to much of the runoff (Knisely). If these proposed solutions can be carried out, phosphorus-filled fertilizer runoff will not be able to make it from fields to Lake Erie in large amounts. Over time, the reduction in phosphorus levels in Lake Erie will lead to a decrease in the size and severity of harmful algae blooms. Fishing businesses that have been impacted by algae will be able to succeed again. Those living near or wanting to visit Lake Erie will no longer have to weigh the risks to their health. People will no longer have to worry about water quality. A collective effort by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, farmers, and the University of Akron must take place to expedite the removal of algae blooms from Lake Erie, allowing the fishing economy, health, and water quality of Lake Erie to thrive once again.