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Algae bloom could spread in Lake Erie, scientists say

Heavy rainfall contributes to agricultural runoff
Posted: 4:02 PM, Jul 02, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-02 18:19:41-04
Lake Erie

ERIE COUNTY, Ohio — Scientists say an algae bloom has begun in Sandusky Bay and could potentially spread to other parts of the lake as a result of heavy rainfall.

Dr. Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said in Sandusky Bay, a greenish tinge to the water indicates an algal bloom, while in other areas, a scum or appearance of "green sawdust" in the water can indicate the presence of a bloom.

"The bloom has only started in Sandusky Bay, which is typical," Stumpf said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It usually starts in May there. In the rest of the lake, it hasn’t started yet, which is good. Last year, the lake warmed up much earlier than this year and there was actually a bloom in mid-June."

Stumpf said this year, he doesn't expect to see a well-developed bloom until late July or August.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie, Stumpf said, "are caused by something called Cyanobacteria or blue-green algae." That can produce a green scum in the water and, in some cases, a toxin.

"The toxin itself can be a danger to swimmers or to pets, to dogs," Stumpf said. "And also it requires extra effort in treating the water to make sure the toxin’s removed from drinking water. All the plants around Lake Erie do a great job of that."

The blooms are primarily caused by agricultural runoff, according to Stumpf. Phosphorus from fertilizer runs off from the land to the lake when there is heavy rain, affecting the size of the bloom. Stumpf said the same issue doesn't usually take place with lawn fertilizers, which don't necessarily include phosphorus.

While Cyanobacteria blooms haven't quite started, Stumpf said the wind moves the blooms around the lake.

The big problem in Lake Erie, Stumpf said, "is the Maumee River [which] is the biggest river going into any of the Great Lakes, and it’s going into the shallowest part and the warmest part of any of the Great Lakes. So you have a lot of nutrients going into a small, warm area. You’ve basically made an incubator for these blooms in Lake Erie."

Stumpf added that the bloom is affected by weather patterns, the amount of rain in the spring, the temperature in the summer and the fall winds.

Still, when there's a bloom in Lake Erie, "it's not everywhere and it's not all the time," Stumpf said.

He urged people to stay out of the water if they see scum or a "green sawdust" in the water, and to keep dogs out of the water as well. If the water looks fine, Stumpf said, then people should be fine to enter the water because the bloom would noticeably discolor the water.

"We’ve come to a point now where it’s not a question of if there will be an algae bloom. We know there will be an algae bloom," said Crystal M.C. Davis, policy director for The Alliance for the Great Lakes. "Now the question is how bad or how big it’s going to be."

Davis said she is hopeful state lawmakers can make some changes with money in the state budget for the H2Ohio plan, increasing investment in Lake Erie.

"Lawmakers still have time to put some accountability metrics in place, so that the folks who get those funds know that they are being held accountable for clean water outcomes associated with that funding," Davis said.

As for whether that could make a difference for this year's algal blooms, Davis said it likely wouldn't.

"But I think that we have to do something," Davis said. "We have to be innovative. We have to work hard to come to solutions for this water. It’s not just recreation, but it’s our source of drinking water, and it’s our greatest natural resource."

NOAA produces a bulletin showing where algal blooms are occurring. You can find it here.

RELATED COVERAGE: Algae bloom creeping into Lake Erie from Sandusky Bay