Weather changes mean more dead zones for Lake Erie: expert

ERIE, Pa Thu Oct 27, 2011 3:53pm EDT

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ERIE, Pa (Reuters) - After a celebrated comeback from abysmal water conditions and high pollution levels in the 1970s, Lake Erie is regressing to the highest levels of phosphorous contamination in 40 years, a Great Lakes expert said on Thursday.

"Levels are back-up to when it was considered a dead lake," said Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory at Ohio State University, speaking at the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference in Erie, Pennsylvania.

He said the lake is experiencing phosphorous levels equal to those of the 1970s, after levels had been reduced by two-thirds in the mid-1990s.

Reutter believes storms and heavy rains contribute to the high levels of phosphorous, a nutrient found in many commercial detergents, water treatments and agricultural fertilizers. The phosphorous gets into the lake through run-off.

When mixed with warm waters, phosphorous creates an ideal condition for the huge algae blooms seen in a number of the Great Lakes.

Algae blooms, in addition to fouling the water in general, contribute to low oxygen levels that kill off fish populations and create conditions favorable to avian botulism and other bacteria dangerous to animals and humans.

Blue-green algae cannot be removed from the water by boiling and has caused huge areas of Lake Erie to be deemed a "dead zone" where nothing can live for lack of oxygen and light, Reutter said.

He believes there is a correlation between record-setting high rainfall in the areas around Lake Erie and record-setting levels of phosphorous.

"The problem is an increased frequency of severe storms," Reutter said. "We don't have much phosphorous going into the water normally. I would say 90 percent of the phosphorous goes into the water 10 percent of the time."

The large algae blooms began as a problem at the eastern shoreline of the lake but have spread quicker than expected to the areas of the shoreline around Canada and Cleveland.

"Hopefully this year is an anomaly," said Reutter, though he worries it isn't. "Climate change, warming trends call it what you want. Storms are getting worse and more frequent and nutrients are flowing into the water."

Some climate scientists say warming temperatures may be making extreme weather events more common.

Reutter's says 2011 had all the conditions for big algae blooms -- early spring storms filled the shallow basin of the lake with a huge load of phosphorous only to be followed by a long drought, meaning less run-off into rivers and tributaries that drain the polluted waters.

But the algae problems seem not to be relegated to the warmer summer and spring months. Ice which once covered the lake in the fall is forming later and thawing earlier due to temperature changes and lower water levels.

"There are a number of things about the warmer winters that are important," says Reutter. A recent investigation of Lake Erie found what appeared to be blue-green algae blooms under the ice in the winter months when usually the cold months kill off most algae and bacteria.

"We are seeing blooms as early as April and as late as October," says Reutter.

Lake Erie is the most susceptible to algae blooms and dead zones because it is the southern-most and shallowest and therefore warmest of the Great Lakes but warming average temperatures are affecting other areas, Reutter said.

Even with recent bans of phosphorous in detergents around the Great Lakes area, a number of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are reporting an increase in algae blooms.

"After decades of studying and reporting … we largely know what the solutions are," said Cameron Davis, senior advisor with the Environmental Protection Agency. "One of the big issues is the increase of algae blooms. We need to double down on the efforts to reduce phosphorous."

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)

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Comments (3)
DaveMichigan wrote:
I find it troublesome that this article completely fails to mention runoff from the numerous concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that contribute vast amounts of nutrients and phosphorous to the runoff into Lake Erie. These operations abound in the southeast Michigan and northwestern Ohio areas that drain into western Lake Erie. “Factory farm” operations clearly need to be factored into any equation when seeking solutions for what is killing our Great Lakes.

Oct 29, 2011 4:17pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
pmaier wrote:
While phosphorus is necessary, much more important is the presence of ‘reactive’ nitrogen. Sadly when EPA implemented the Clean Water Act, it used an essential test incorectly and ignored not only 60% of the pollution in sewage that exerts an oxygen demand and Congress clearly intended to ‘treat’, but also ignored all the pollution caused by nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste in sewage, while this waste, besides exerting an oxygen demand, is also a fertilizer for algae and a major cause of dead zones, now experienced in all open waters.
Even though we still do not know how sewage is really treated and what their effluent waste load is on receivig water bodies, EPA refused to correct this test, while already in 1978 acknowldeging that not only much better sewage treatment (including nitrognous waste) is available, but also can be built and operated at much lower cost.(
Sadly nobody cares and this issue apparently is too difficult for the media to undersand.

Oct 29, 2011 4:46pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
LNiewenhuis wrote:
Lake Erie is the “canary in the coal mine” of the Great Lakes. When things are going poorly for this lake, the others are in trouble, too.

I was astonished to learn that the blue-green algae was blooming underneath the ice last winter. I recently read that blue-green algae was eradicated from an inland lake in Ohio by using large quantities of a chemical (alum?) to bind excess phosphorus and remove it from the lake there. I don’t think this method can be scaled up for the Great Lakes.

I have lived in Michigan most of my life and am concerned about the health of our Great Lakes. In 2009, I walked all the way around Lake Michigan and saw the damage we have done to this great inland sea with pollution, sewage run-off, invasive species, and other abuses.

My book, A 1000-MILE WALK ON THE BEACH, documents many of these problems. It also explores some of the measures being taken to improve the health of the lakes, most notably the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Nov 02, 2011 10:37pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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