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No fast fix for Ohio's algae problems

TNS Regional News • Aug 7, 2014 at 3:07 PM

Anyone expecting a quick fix for the algae problems in Lake Erie that forced Toledo to declare a drinking-water ban that affected 500,000 people this week need only look to Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio.

The 13,000-acre lake is the poster child for farm pollution and toxic blue-green algae in Ohio. For years, the state has put up signs at Grand Lake every summer warning that the water could make people sick.

And it’s not as if the state hasn’t tried anything. It has spent more than $17 million trying to fix the problem with plans for $2 million in additional funds.

But the one thing the state has not done is set mandatory restrictions for farm runoff. And that’s the one thing scientists have repeatedly told the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Agriculture would correct the problem there as well as in Lake Erie and other inland lakes.

“If you don’t reduce the amount of phosphorus going in, everything else you do is like putting a Band-Aid on it,” said Jeff Reutter, an expert on toxic algae who is the director of Ohio State University’s Sea Grant College and Stone Laboratory. “You’ve got to cure the problem at its source. That’s the way you solve the problem in Lake Erie.”

•    •    •

Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, are common in most Ohio lakes. They grow thick by feeding on phosphorus from manure, fertilizer and sewage that rain washes into streams from farm fields and other sources.

As many as 19 public lakes, including central Ohio’s Buckeye Lake, have been tainted in recent years by toxic algae.

Columbus had problems with its drinking water after a different kind of algae bloomed in Hoover Reservoir. The city has spent nearly $1?million to fix the problem, which caused tap water to smell and taste funny.

Water samples taken at Grand Lake St. Marys on July 30 showed microcystin, a liver and neurological toxin that the algae produce, at 49.8 parts per billion. The state’s safety threshold for swimming is 6 parts per billion.

It was high levels of microcystin that forced Toledo officials to issue the water-use ban. The World Health Organization’s safe limit for microcystin in drinking water is 1 part per billion.

Some people who live near Grand Lake St. Marys and rely on tourism for their income say the state needs to enact phosphorus limits.

“At the end of the day, ultimately, if we can’t get a handle on it, it’s going to have to be mandated,” said Tim Lovett, the president of the Lake Improvement Association there. “If the ground can’t take any more (phosphorus), it shouldn’t be given any more. It’s not rocket science.”

While Grand Lake served as one warning, plenty of red flags were being raised over algae in Lake Erie, too.

A state report in 2010 linked farm runoff with the toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie’s western basin each summer.

The “biologically available” phosphorous — the amount of absorbed phosphorus that algae easily digest — that flowed into Lake Erie from the Sandusky and Maumee rivers more than tripled since 1995, the report said.

In July 2010, monitors that Heidelberg University placed in the Maumee River detected 261 tons of dissolved phosphorous the river had carried into Lake Erie. That was the most since 1975.

Then, in 2011, the algae bloom grew to enormous lengths, stretching from Toledo to Cleveland and easily seen from space.

The work the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has performed at Grand Lake St. Marys includes dredging sediment and applying alum, a compound that starves algae. The additional funds the state legislature has approved will go to build a wetland to absorb phosphorus in stream water that flows into Grand Lake, which is surrounded by farms.

Reutter said Grand Lake St. Marys is more difficult to deal with than Lake Erie.

“The concentration of phosphorus in the soils of the Maumee Bay watershed is not as high as the concentration at Grand Lake St. Marys,” he said, because of the number of farms and livestock operations surrounding Grand Lake.

The state declared the lake’s watershed “distressed” in 2011 and told farmers there that they can’t apply manure to their fields in the winter, when it can’t be absorbed in the soil, said Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce.

As for mandatory phosphorus limits, Bruce said, “Let’s see how our plans work.”

State agencies have developed a reduction strategy that recommends initiatives and voluntary practices to reduce farm runoff statewide.

“There’s not one quick fix,” said Dina Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA.

•    •    •

Residents and farmers near Indian Lake, located about 70 miles northwest of Columbus, took matters into their own hands 25 years ago when they met to discuss the lake’s long-term future.

The plan they came up with included farmers’ agreeing to no-till practices, which reduced sediment and phosphorus running into the 5,800-acre lake.

They also agreed to plant 10- to 12-foot-wide grassy filter strips along streams that flow into the lake and farmland that abuts the lake, said Frank Dietz, a board member of the Indian Lake Watershed Project.

Since then, water quality has been good. Tests this year showed microcystin levels of about 0.15 part per billion, well below state safety standards, said Betty Lyle, a watershed board member.

“The lake looks wonderful,” she said.


By Mark Ferenchik - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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