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The Green Room: Toxic Algae Is An 'All Of Us' Issue

Toxic algae has been plaguing Lake Erie—why, and what can we do to stop it?  Perspectives abound, especially when it comes to whether or not measures to prevent it should be voluntary or prescribed by law.  In this month’s “Green Room” show Barbara Lucas explores this simple organism and the complex problems it’s causing.  

Last August in Lake Erie a bloom of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, poisoned Toledo’s drinking water for three long days.  In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at possible reasons and potential solutions to prevent more of the same next summer.

Dr. Tom Johengen:  And we vacuum away the water…

Barbara Lucas (BL):  Dr. Tom Johengen is a University of Michigan researcher. I’m at his lab at Ann Arbor’s office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where water samples are tested from a variety of locations in Lake Erie to track and predict the toxic blooms.

Johengen:  Once we filter the water out you can see the amount of algae that is left behind.

BL:  Dr. Johengen tells me that cyanobacteria—or toxic algae—occur naturally, are billions of years old, and are never going away.  He says their numbers explode when phosphorus gets in the water, the main source today being from fertilizer or manure runoff, a problem which was made worse by the draining of wetlands to create farm fields. 

Johengen:  And we have more tile drainage that lets water permeate and get to the river faster.

BL:  He says climate change is resulting in even more runoff of phosphorus. 

Johengen:  So we are seeing more intense storms that we think are exacerbating the problem in that we are seeing higher delivery because that is going to just flush more off.

BL:  He says pinpointing sources and reducing the phosphorus was far easier when it came from pipes, not fields.

Johengen:  Back in the 60s and 70s most of those point sources included sewage and also phosphates that was in detergents.

BL:  He says when the Clean Water Act improved sewage treatment and banned phosphorus from detergents, Lake Erie bounced back.  But then a new actor entered the stage, making the lake more sensitive to phosphorus.

Johengen: The zebra mussels are changing which algae are predominant in the lake.  So the mussels don’t like to filter the cyanobacteria so they sort of reject them, or leave them behind, so those algae are left to accumulate throughout the summer growing season.

BL:  Which river dumps the highest concentration of phosphorus into Lake Erie?  It’s the Maumee, which is why I tagged along on a river cruise through Toledo to the lake.  Sponsored by the Washtenaw County Conservation District for local farmers, the goal was to see the algae and discuss solutions.  We’re motoring along on a 65-foot boat, flanked by heavy industry on either side, presentations competing with trains passing overhead.

Speaker: …to continue that restoration…

BL:  One of the 46 passengers is Howard Cyrus, a Washtenaw County farmer.

Howard Cyrus:  All I know is they like to put a lot of blame on all the phosphorus from the farm, but farmers don't like the phosphorus to run off so we don't use anymore than we need to.

BL:  Many of the speakers are discussing the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, a voluntary educational program for farmers.  Here’s County conservationist Steve Olds.

Steve Olds:  You may want to go to a grid system where you only put the fertilizer where it is needed.  There's practices—filter strips—that we are doing, that would be 30 foot wide strips along water’s edge around wetlands that would provide some buffering…

BL:  Cyrus says some farmers are reluctant to put in the recommended buffers.

Cyrus:  It’s a monetary thing, that’s a lot of it.  Some people like to plant every bit of land they’ve got.  A lot of it is that's the way it's always been, so some people don't really like to make changes.

BL:  Others embrace the suggestions.  Tom and Lee Anne Shanahan have a small farm in Gregory, the first in their township to be verified by the program.

Tom Shanahan:  We've gone from broadcasting fertilizer to banding it by the row.  Now, if you put it next to the corn plant, the corn plant can use it!  And you can get by sometimes with less fertilizer.  5:35 Manure management is another thing too. We don't put any on frozen ground anymore.

BL:  At a January 21st hearing in Lansing, clean water advocates asked for a total ban on the spreading of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground, to prevent phosphorus run-off in a rain or thaw.  But so far the focus has been on voluntary measures like the Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, the first legislation signed by Governor Snyder when he took office.  

Shanahan: Governor Snyder wants them to get 5,000 farms certified, and that’s his goal.

BL:  So far the state has about 2,500 verified farms, which is only about 4% of the 56,000 farms in Michigan.  Shanahan says some farmers have the wrong idea of the program, viewing government as intrusive, rather than helpful.

Shanahan:  9:30 Just another thing that Big Brother is watching you.

BL:  When it comes to toxic algae, there’s plenty of controversy over the role of government.  I spoke with Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission, which issued a report last February outlining causes of the algal blooms and recommending action steps, including a call for having the waters of Lake Erie declared impaired, which would allow EPA phosphorus-loading regulations to step in. 

Lana Pollack:  …because they’re clearly impaired!

BL:  Pollack says farming can be challenging, but…

Pollack:  Practices that may have been adequately protective of the water in the past are no longer adequately protective, so the bar has to be raised. 

BL:  She says some government policies have exacerbated the Lake’s problems, through subsidies and the federal mandate that 10% of our gasoline contain biofuels.

Pollack:  The production of corn has substantially risen in the last few years.  It has increased because it pays!  It pays well to grow corn.

BL:  Pollack says corn is both fertilizer-intensive, and the incentives to plant it result in less protective buffers around waterways. And she’s frustrated that the State of Michigan allows any spreading of manure on frozen ground.

Pollack:  We can't allow that to happen anymore than we can allow people that have failing septics let human waste go directly into the basin. None of these things can be voluntary.  We have too many people sharing the water. 

BL:  She feels Michigan and Ohio’s reliance on voluntary measures has been a mistake.

Pollack:  They are failing.  I mean they are an utter failure. If they weren’t failing, we wouldn't be seeing algal blooms that have a definite downward drag on property values and are really costing the fishing industry—both the sports fishing and the commercial—as well as the most basic elements of life: access to fresh drinking water. It's a big F for failure!

BL:  Spokesperson Brad Wurfel of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says most of Lake Erie’s phosphorus comes from farm runoff in Ohio, and Ohio has pledged $50 million dollars to address this.  He feels Michigan’s educational programs have done a lot to cut phosphorus.

Brad Wurfel:  And we feel like we're making progress and we are going to let some of this play out. We just got $17 million in the Farm bill just came through for Michigan projects that would address phosphorus impacts to surface water.  So there's a lot happening!

BL:  In response to the IJC’s call for declaring the waters of Lake Erie as impaired... 

Wurfel:  There is no scientific evidence for designating western Lake Erie impaired. There's no study that has been done that would make it appropriate for us to support that kind of request.

BL:  Pollack feels the situation calls for urgent action, and says the economic benefits of cleaner water will surely meet or exceed the costs to attain it.

Pollack:  We had a terrible problem in the 60s and 70s and we addressed that problem. We know what we need to do, we know what the costs of inaction are, we had success in the past, we could have success again.

BL:  Whether achieved through education or legislation, clean water has wide benefits.  Back on the Maumee, here’s Washtenaw County conservationist Amy Gilhouse.

Amy Gilhouse:  It's an ‘all of us’ issue. The Great Lakes are a treasure to all of us, and Lake Erie is considered the canary in the coal mine.  


A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: International Joint Commission Report on Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms

Harmful Algal Blooms: NOAA Great lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.