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.