Algae is again fouling Lake Erie. Thanks a lot, Ohio.


Harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie, above, can form dense surface scums and may produce toxins that can affect animals and humans. (Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Across western Lake Erie, a giant green algal mass is again forming and it’s the largest in three years. How big is it? 

So big it can be seen from space and, at 620 square miles, is about bigger than the largest cities in Michigan (Detroit), Ohio (Columbus) and Indiana (Indianapolis) put together.

Not just freakishly huge, the unsightly, globby green mass is prompting beach advisories about swimming in Ohio and Michigan and prompted worries about a repeat of 2014. That’s when toxic algae caused Toledo to shut its water plant, leaving over 500,000 people without running water for nearly three days.

But don’t blame Michigan this time.

Just five years after that dramatic water shutdown, environmentalists and state officials praise Michigan farmers for reducing the algae-feeding nutrients that can run off the land and into the lake.

The efforts of hundreds of farmers in southeast Michigan to filter runoff and limit the loss of phosphorus –  used to fertilize crops – have earned them the appreciation of state leaders on both sides of the border. 

“The growers care,” said Jim Johnson, director of the environmental stewardship division of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Combined with major reductions at Detroit’s biggest wastewater treatment plant, Michigan is well on its way of meeting a goal –  set by Michigan, Ohio and Ontario officials – of reducing phosphorus releases into the Lake Erie basin by 40 percent by 2025.

Already, Michigan has reduced phosphorus releases by 36 percent since 2008, the benchmark year. One of the biggest reductions came from the Detroit sewage plant, which empties into the Detroit River that feeds Lake Erie.

And farmers, who contribute an estimated 85 percent of the phosphorus found in the lake, have lowered their discharges by 26 percent, Johnson said.

Despite those reductions, the algae continues to grow in Lake Erie, prompting warnings to avoid contact with the algae.

That’s because the far bigger problem lies in the fertile land in the Maumee River watershed across northwest Ohio and on into Indiana, an area of 4 million acres, 90 percent of it farmland (there are roughly 10 million acres of farmland in all of Michigan).

Lake Erie

For the first time since 2017, harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie have generated warnings along Ohio beaches, like the one at Maumee Bay State Park east of Toledo. Officials want beachgoers to avoid contact with the water and the potentially harmful toxins generated by the algae. (Bridge photo by Mike Wilkinson)

Ohio officials marvel at how Michigan’s farmers have moved so quickly. Part of it is topography and soil –  Michigan’s hills and dirt help slow phosphorus while much of Ohio is sandy, flat and clay-lined – creating almost racetracks for phosphorus.

“It’s been more difficult [in Ohio],” said Sandra Kosek-Sills, an environmental specialist for the Lake Erie Commission, created by the Ohio Legislature to manage the Lake Erie Protection Fund and advise Ohio’s governor on the lake.

While Michigan’s efforts to tame nutrient-rich runoff is doing well in southern Michigan, they’re not restricted to the Lake Erie basin.

“We’re doing this work everywhere,” Johnson said.

What makes algae grow in Lake Erie can make algae and weeds grow in almost any body of water, from inland lakes to the state’s streams, rivers and bays.

Officials have watched algal blooms on Saginaw Bay and on inland lakes across Michigan. On the western side of the state, researchers and activists are working to clean Lake Macatawa, which cuts through Holland on its way into Lake Michigan and has seen an increase in bacteria fed by farm runoff.

In some lake communities, residents are discouraging fertilizer because of its impact on area waterways and can affect swimming and fishing.

For farmers, the motivation to cut down on runoff is twofold –  care for the land and environment but also cost. Fertilizer is expensive and can cost $100 an acre. They’d prefer it stay in the soil where the crops grow rather than get washed out into the lakes and streams.

“The farmers are already doing an amazing job. They’re using just as much fertilizer on the plants as they need,” said Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, which has monitored water quality in the Lake Erie watershed since the 1970s.

But despite farmers’ efforts to apply just as much as they need, anywhere from a few ounces to a pound can wash away –  a tiny fraction of the total. That’s enough, multiplied by millions of acres of farmland, to trigger huge problems downstream, Heidelberg’s Johnson said.

“The problem is the water goes into Lake Erie and Lake Erie is really sensitive to phosphorus,” she said. Lake Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, contributing to its fragility.

So far this summer, despite the large presence of algae, the water supply in Toledo, which supplies a half-million people, is safe. But researchers continue to monitor the water as others look for ways to reduce phosphorus flows even more.

Despite its reduced role in fueling the algae problem, both former Gov. Rick Snyder and current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have committed Michigan to helping Lake Erie.

“We’re a part of this and we have a role to play in the solution to this,” MDARD’s Jim Johnson said.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Sandy Bihn
Fri, 09/06/2019 - 10:21am

The Farm Bureau brags, and data backs this, that phosphorous applied with commercial fertilizer has decreased 30-50% in the last twenty years in the Western basin of Lake Erie(which includes the Maumee watershed). While farmers using commercial fertilizer are reducing phosphorous applications - saving money for farmers and helping the lake, the number of Confined Animal Feeding Operations(CAFO's) is increasing in the western basin of Lake Erie which also increases the amount of manure and phosphorous land applied. One recent study shows that the amount of manure being land applied has increased by over 40% and the amount of phosphorous by 62%. This year shows that huge reductions in commercial fertilizer phosphorous applications(because there was far less planting because of rains) did not significantly reduce the horrible 2019 algae bloom. So where did the phosphorous come from that made Lake Erie green in 2019? Animals still produce manure when it rains - lagoons fill quicker and there are far fewer crops to uptake the manure nutrients. Some researchers say the 2019 problem is legacy phosphorous(phosphorous already in the soil). Sure that is part of it but consider the rules in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana where the amount of manure phosphorous allowed to accumulate in the soil is 150 parts per million but for commercial fertilizer it is 40 parts per million(now recommended to decrease to 30 parts per million. And consider that cow and pig manure is liquefied and land applied with studies showing the liquid manure drains quickly to the field tiles and out the ditches and streams to the lake. Also know that in Ontario, the rules for soil phosphorous are the same for commercial fertilizer and manure - the agronomic/crop need amount. And in Ontario farmers have to have a certain amount of land/acreage, predetermined by the government, for manure application.
Think of it this way, a farmer who has a family of six is required to have a septic system but can have a permit for 4500 cows(about 90,000 people's waste) land applied as a liquid all around him. Unless manure at confined animals feeding operations is treated like human waste, Lake Erie will remain green. And Michigan, Ohio and Indiana are all part of this problem.

Pam Taylor
Sat, 09/07/2019 - 11:58am

Wow. Time for some fact-checking.

First, dissolved orthophosphate (the form of phosphorus that feeds harmful algae, which is different from total phosphorus reduction of 26% quoted above ) has doubled since the 1980's in the River Raisin (Michigan's portion of the Western Lake Erie Basin). The kind of phosphorus that actually feeds harmful algae is not going down in this Michigan contributor to Lake Erie, it's going up.

Next, the soil in MI's portion of the WLEB is mostly clay, like it is in the rest of the watershed. It's underlaid by thousands of miles of subsurface drain tile, like an agricultural sewer system, and as much as 80% of the dissolved nutrients that feed these blooms are transported to the surface streams that empty into Lake Erie through these tiles. The same conditions exist in Michigan's Saginaw Bay region (the Thumb), around Lake Macatawa and the Lake Michigan region from Holland to Muskegon. The Western Lake Erie Basin and Saginaw Bay were once part of the larger lake beds; they don't include much of the glacial moraines, or the sandy, hilly soil that exists in other parts of Michigan.

The group I belong to, ECCSCM, has been actually testing the water in Michigan's portion of the WLEB for nearly 20 years (51 sites in 21 Michigan townships within the Michigan portion of the Western Lake Erie Basin) for these nutrients, E. coli, and other contaminants including different Cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins, as well as DNA testing of Bacteroides for source species (humans and livestock). Our data - and we are the only group anywhere in the WLEB headwaters including any agency or university who is doing this much extensive testing - shows that orthophosphate that causes blooms is getting worse, not better, E. coli is just as bad as it ever was. DNA tests show increasing levels of Cyanobacteria, we find cyanotoxins pretty much every where we sample. We find livestock DNA (around large, permitted CAFOs and their manure application fields) and human DNA just about everywhere we test.

Bottom line - not only is Michigan not doing better when it comes to Lake Erie, Lake Huron/Saginaw Bay, Lake Michigan, and all of Michigan's inland rivers, lakes, and the municipal water treatment systems that draw their water from one of these sources (over 50% of Michigan residents), it's doing worse.

Michigan has no state policy, no regulations on cyanotoxins like those that caused Toledo's water crisis in 2014, which are far more toxic than even lead or PFAS/PFOS. Since Michigan has no drinking water quality standard for cyanotoxins, municipal water treatment plants aren't required to regularly test for them if they don't want to, so citizens have no way of knowing if they're in their drinking water or not. Unlike the smelly, slimy Cyanobacteria carrier, cyanotoxins themselves are colorless, odorless, too small to be seen by the naked eye, and they are present often long after all signs of algae are gone. Boiling concentrates the toxins, and for all practical purposes, they're impossible to filter out by any home system.

Despite declaring Michigan's portion of the open waters of Lake Erie impaired for nutrients in 2015, zero has happened in terms of actually limiting HAB-causing nutrients, that would be enforceable under the Clean Water Act. Michigan's approach to regulating pollution from manure and from failed/inadequate septic systems has so many loopholes that you could navigate an aircraft carrier through it, and rather than enforcing environmental regulations, the culture at MDEGLE is to work towards gaining compliance instead of enforcing existing laws. NPDES permits that regulate pollutants (like stormwater overflow discharges from cities and large factory farms) contain prohibitions that, if followed, prevent environmental damage in the same way that stop signs, stopping behind school buses, and other traffic laws prevent deadly accidents. You or I would get points on our driver's license, a substantial fine, and possibly worse if we failed to stop - why doesn't the same thing happen to polluters here in Michigan?

Instead of tickets and fines, polluters in Michigan get warnings and stern letters called compliance communications, even after repeated, major pollution incidents that foul municipal drinking water systems, close beaches, and create harmful algae blooms. Not only that, the current crop of Michigan legislators isn't likely to consider funding infrastructure upgrades for downstream victims of this lack of regulatory policy and enforcement. And it's not getting any better.

Michigan's large CAFOs supply roughly 16% of the large factory farm manure in the entire WLEB, which includes parts of northwestern Ohio, southern Michigan, and northeastern Indiana. Despite the rains, and therefore crops not planted this year, and a sharp decrease in commercial phosphorus fertilizer used here over the past few years (it's expensive), livestock waste/manure application rolls on, just as it always does. No change - animals poop, it has to go somewhere. Since last spring, and all summer long, we've documented multiple applications on fields where there is no crop, just weeds, sometimes bare ground, often multiple applications on the same field. That's not "just enough", that's dumping it to get rid of it. No decrease in manure application at all here. And our tests show no decrease in the orthophosphate or bacteria in our tributary surface waters that empty into Lake Erie this year.

Current "fixes" rely on voluntary actions and programs containing practices that don't work for the conditions here, with zero accountability in terms of actually showing measurable improvement through edge-of-field, edge-of-tile pipe water testing, for the millions and millions of dollars of tax money spent.

No, Michigan isn't doing any better. It's just as bad as it ever was.

Maybe Michigan should take the plank out of its own eye when it comes to the part it plays in causing harmful algae blooms and the Great Lakes' problems, instead of looking for the specks in Indiana and Ohio.

Ben W. Washburn
Mon, 09/09/2019 - 10:56pm

I am impressed by the points made by the previous two commentators. I grew-up on a farm, went to a vocational agriculture high school, and continued at a land grant college of agriculture. But, I would guess that 95% of Bridge readers have no useful frame of reference for understanding either this article or these two enlightening comments. As a touchstone, I would suggest that folks read a highly readable and informative recent book: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan. I don't know for sure, but would also suspect that our State agencies, whether under Republican or Democratic "leadership" are indeed claiming more credit for pollution mitigation than the actual facts would support. That tends to be the norm for all folks who want to be seen in the best light.

Don Mitchel
Tue, 10/08/2019 - 6:35am

Perhaps the spreading of algae through out sensitive waters in the Great Lakes, by ships confined to the Great Lakes, that are not required to to use ballast water management systems, should also be addressed. Currently a bipartisan bill signed into law in dec 2018 to address ballast water regulations, with special consideration for sensitive waters in the United States is being worked on by the EPA and Coast Guard. Although there there is little to no media coverage a whopping 38 public comments were received on the website from around the country, in regards to ballast water management systems.

Don Mitchel
Tue, 10/08/2019 - 6:35am

Perhaps the spreading of algae through out sensitive waters in the Great Lakes, by ships confined to the Great Lakes, that are not required to to use ballast water management systems, should also be addressed. Currently a bipartisan bill signed into law in dec 2018 to address ballast water regulations, with special consideration for sensitive waters in the United States is being worked on by the EPA and Coast Guard. Although there there is little to no media coverage a whopping 38 public comments were received on the website from around the country, in regards to ballast water management systems.