Green grows the algae bloom, and not enough is being done about it

Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson is a retired environmental research engineer and former director of the USEPA Large Lakes Research Station in Grosse Ile, Michigan.

Summertime for many of us who call the Great Lakes State home means enjoying our lakes, rivers, and parks as much as possible. However, for those enjoying summers on Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay, and numerous inland lakes and rivers across Michigan, that also now means encountering harmful, toxic algae blooms.

Every year now, Michiganders get to see (and smell) these unmistakable reminders that this problem is not getting better – the frequency, size and toxicity of algae blooms are worse than ever. When the water is thick, green, and smells like sewage, you don’t really sit back and enjoy Pure Michigan.

The algae blooms force beaches to close and boaters to beware, creating a loss for vacationers and the tourism industry as well as a financial hit for those who make their living on Michigan’s waters. A study commissioned by the International Joint Commission found that two severe toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie in 2011 and 2014 caused approximately $136 million in economic costs.

In the 1970’s, scientists figured out that phosphorus was the primary cause and, if reduced, would eliminate nuisance growths of algae and eliminate the dead zone at the bottom of Lake Erie. Target phosphorus loads for the Great Lakes were established by the U.S. and Canada, phosphorus was banned from laundry detergents, and wastewater treatment plants were ordered to treat their discharges to remove most of the phosphorus. Farmers were also asked to control phosphorus runoff. As a result, Lake Erie came to life and most of the bad algae disappeared.

But over the ensuing years, increased industrial farming in the Maumee and River Raisin watersheds has led to more phosphorus entering western Lake Erie. Now, policy makers appear to be reluctant to put in place needed policies to control phosphorus runoff from industrial farms even though they know how bad the algae problem has gotten.

So bad, that in August of 2014 the city of Toledo and portions of Monroe County (Michigan) had their drinking water contaminated by a powerful neurotoxin released from cyanobacteria, another name for this toxic algae. This neurotoxin, called microcystin, which causes dizziness, rashes, numbness, fever and vomiting shut down the water supply to nearly half a million people. They were told to not even touch the water from their taps. More recent studies have even linked this toxin to the possibility of causing ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and other brain damage to people living near contaminated waters.

Recognizing the severity of the problem in Lake Erie, Michigan joined with Ohio and Ontario in vowing to take action to reduce phosphorus that spurs algae growth by 20 percent by 2020 and 40 percent by 2025.

Unfortunately, in Michigan, so far we’ve heard lots of talk about reaching that goal with little visible progress. Michigan declared Lake Erie impaired under the Clean Water Act, acknowledging the severity of the problem, but our state leaders are dropping the ball when it comes to an effective plan to get the lake back to good health.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) just released a draft plan outlining what actions the state will take to get the waters of Lake Erie back on track and meet our 40 percent phosphorus reduction goal. However, as the plan is currently written, that outcome is highly unlikely. The plan does not include timelines nor an estimate of resources needed to implement the plan.

We know that the great majority of phosphorus entering Lake Erie now is coming from manure and fertilizer washing off of farm fields and into the rivers and streams that flow into Lake Erie. Unfortunately, the DEQ’s plan relies heavily on expanding longstanding voluntary programs and reducing phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Neither of those core tactics will allow us to achieve the phosphorus reduction we need to bring Lake Erie back to a healthy state.

In order to achieve the required reductions from industrial agriculture, farms in the watershed need to adopt practices that reduce phosphorus runoff and we need to target those practices at fields where runoff is highest. Additionally, the state should consider banning manure application on frozen, snow covered and saturated grounds. We should ensure that industrial farms are regularly testing the phosphorus levels in their fields and only applying the amount of nutrients that the plant needs to grow. Michigan should also look to help farmers take low performing or highly erodible fields out of production and convert it back into a more natural state.   

Our leaders have let this issue go unresolved for too long, putting our economy and health at risk. The governor, our legislators and the DEQ need to hear from us that a much stronger plan of action is required. Now is the time to proactively attack this threat before we face yet another water crisis in Pure Michigan.

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Mon, 07/31/2017 - 4:43pm

Thank you Bill for this summary of this problem in Michigan. Once again this goes back to political will, and I would agree this problem has gone on for too long.

The problem is the complexity of the problem and the need to get all of the stakeholders around the table to come up with some realistic solutions and targeted goals.

This takes mature and experienced public servants who have the skills of dialogue and collaboration. This also takes more time than "quick solutions". I don't really see these skills in Michigan leaders.

Dan woods
Mon, 07/31/2017 - 7:13pm

Confirmed microcists found in Muskegon River near Stanwood.

Sandy Bihn
Wed, 08/09/2017 - 11:13pm

Thanks for this insightful article.
To add to the information, few people know that there are two different sets of 'guidelines' for manure and for commercial fertilizer for the amount of phosphorous that should be in the soil to grow the best crop. For commercial fertilizer, the soil phosphorous is up to 40 ppm - this is what is known as the agronomic/crop need rate. For manure, the soil phosphorous is up to 150 ppm or more. Over 40 ppm, there is no benefit to the corn or beans or whatever. The 150 ppm for manure is set by something called the phosphorous index which allows as much manure as possible - the saturation point. We all need to get the rules changed for the soil phosphorous amount for manure to be the same as the soil phosphorous amount for commercial fertilizer - currently 40 ppm. What is disturbing is that we are told that the manure replaces commercial fertilizer - what we are not told is that excess phosphorous can be applied to the soil when manure is used.
The second point is on the Clean Water - Impaired - TMDL - Implementation Plan. What is happening in the Lake Erie watershed by all governing bodies, is agreements and wishful thinking with no regular reporting of the amount of phosphorous reduced for the dollars spent. Agreements and rhetoric without accountability and reporting do not work. The only known system - the Chesapeake - which tried the agreements etc. for nearly 20 years while they watched the bay get worse and worse. Once they identified sources and amount and agreed on what was coming from where - then provided a management plan that became part of the TMDL - Implementation plan, progress began. Today the crabs and oysters are coming back and there is continued progress. Ironically, the Chesapeake used the decades old Lake Erie framework -annual reduction reports from all sources and multi stakeholder meetings.
My last point is that it appears that of manure soil phosphorous were reduced to the agronomic rate - the phosphorous reduction into Lake Erie would be about half of the 40% reduction needed to reduce the algae. Manure reductions today are similar to the fight decades ago to get phosphorous out of laundry detergent which Proctor and Gamble fought for years not to do, but in the end found a way to have clean clothes and no phosphorus in laundry detergent which they have now expanded to dishwasher detergent(with no fight and still clean dishes)