Lake Erie Toxic Algae Bloom Seen as Worst in Decades
by Sandy Bihn
Lake Erie 2011 is going down in the history books as the worst year for excess algae in decades—maybe ever. The algae was so bad that boat motors were slowed while driving through the algae. This was happening east of Lake Erie’s islands and into Canada in open water eight miles or more from shore. The algae went all the way past Cleveland to nearly Pennsylvania on Lake Erie’s southern shore and east to Pelee Island in Ontario. The satellite images showed the massive bright green algal blooms covering about two thirds of Lake Erie’s western and central basins.
Lake Erie has been experiencing growing algae and microcystis problems, also known as harmful algal blooms since 2003 with Heidelberg University data showing a steady increase in soluble reactive phosphorous since 1995. The nutrients which fuel algae growth are carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. Of these three nutrients, phosphorus is the smallest in quantity but the easiest to control. In the 1980s, reductions in phosphorous discharges in wastewater plants and the banning of phosphorous in laundry detergent, along with the elimination of other toxic discharges, have created a healthier Lake Erie.
Excess algae creates many problems, including increases in water treatment costs, decreases in tourism, increases in catfish and carp, and decreases in walleye, perch and bass. The algae impacts human and animal health with many beaches posting advisory signs from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources advising, “Algal toxins at this location are unsafe, swimming and wading are not recommended. Do not ingest the water and avoid surface scum.”
Lake Erie is not alone in its struggle with too many nutrients causing too much algae. Weather changes such as increased temperatures, heavy rainfalls and severe winds increase the likelihood of harmful algae. Other bodies of water in the U.S. that struggle with algae problems include Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, Wisconsin’s Lake Champlain, Michigan’s Saginaw Bay, Ohio’s Grand Lake St. Marys and the Gulf of Mexico.
In Lake Erie, more than 40 percent of the phosphorous comes from the Maumee River and 40 percent comes from the Detroit River. The rest of Lake Erie’s tributaries and outfalls contribute a little less than 20 percent.
According to a recently released U.S. Geological Survey study, more than 70 percent of the phosphorous in the Cuyahoga River comes from wastewater treatment plants. The largest phosphorous loads going into the Detroit River and Maumee River, and other Lake Erie tributaries, come from farm runoff, liquid manure runoff, wastewater treatment plant discharges, combined sewer overflows, storm water, lawn fertilizer and failing septic systems. There is also concern that sediment buildup in the lake may have phosphorous that is being resuspended in storms.
The largest single source of phosphorous in the 1970s was the Detroit wastewater plant and it is very likely that it still remains one of Lake Erie’s biggest problems. The Detroit wastewater plant is the single largest wastewater plant in the U.S., and its major outfall is on the southern end of the Detroit River and flows right into Lake Erie.
In the summer of 2011, the plant had trouble getting rid of sewage sludge and thousands of tons of sludge — which is used as fertilizer on fields—spewed into Lake Erie. In addition, the Detroit wastewater plant had more than 30 billion gallons of combined sewer overflows into Lake Erie this summer—far more than Ohio’s Lake Erie wastewater plants combined.
According to Ohio Sea Grant Director Jeff Reutter, we need to decrease phosphorous entering Lake Erie by about two-thirds, like we did in the 1980’s when Lake Erie became the comeback lake.
The five easiest ways to reduce phosphorous in Lake Erie include the following:
• The Detroit wastewater discharge permit is up for renewal in 2012. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine should intervene in the 2012 permit requiring the plant to reduce plant phosphorous discharges and to stop dumping raw and partially treated sewage into Ohio’s Lake Erie waters.
• Ohio allows liquid manure and fertilizer to be applied to frozen ground. Ohio is banning this practice in the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed and Lake Erie needs to do the same. The practice of using taxpayers’ money to truck liquid manure out of the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed into the Lake Erie watershed needs to end.
• There needs to be targeted reductions of phosphorous from agricultural runoff in targeted streams and rivers. A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that the Auglaize, Blanchard, Tiffin and Sandusky Rivers might be good rivers to target for reduction in agricultural runoff.
• Open lake dumping of dredged sediments from the Toledo shipping channel resuspends nutrients and increases turbidity that aids in algae growth. The dredged sediments should be placed in a created eco-island to provide habitat for fish spawning grounds.
• Phosphorous in mature lawn fertilizers has been banned in many states across the country, including Michigan. Ohio should do the same. Ohio-based Scotts Fertilizer is voluntarily taking phosphorous out of mature lawn fertilizer in 2012. It seems simple and practical to require the same of all fertilizers in Ohio.
The Lake Erie Improvement Association has brought together Lake Erie fishermen, boaters, businesses, property owners, tourists and people who get their drinking water from Lake Erie. This collaboration of stakeholders is the same model that was used to help improve the water quality at Grand Lake St. Marys that created a healthier environment, recreational opportunities and tourism revenue.
For more information, call Sandy Bihn at 419-691- 3788 or visit www.lakeerieimprovement.org.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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