News and views, and history and humor, about the lake I love.

"I can hear my granddad's stories of the storms out on Lake Erie, where vessels and cargos and fortunes, and sailors' lives were lost." ~ James Taylor, Millworker

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Finger pointing over cause of phosphorus won't heal a dying lake

Sewage from municipal plants in Detroit, Toledo and other cities along Lake Erie contribute just as much phosphorus to the lake as manure and fertilizer runoff from farms,  according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. Phosphorus, a byproduct of sewage, fertilizers and manure, is responsible for the toxic blue-green algae that excrete liver and nerve toxins which can sicken people and kill fish and wildlife.

The study's finding that cities are just as much to blame as farms for toxic algae polluting Lake Erie comes as a surprise to Ohio's scientists, who previously thought that farm runoff was responsible for as much as 60 percent of phosphorus in Lake Erie, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

I have reported extensively on the algae issue and pass along Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletins as soon as I receive them. The algae threaten Lake Erie's $10 billion-a-year fishing and tourism industry. Algae cause "dead zones" in parts of Lake Erie and other bodies of water where no oxygen exists, making them uninhabitable.

The current bloom of algae in Lake Erie has caused public beaches at Maumee Bay and Kelley's Island to issue health warnings.

Peter Richards, a water-quality researcher at Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality Research, told the Columbus Dispatch that there is some discrepancy in the data; however, Geological Survey research hydrologist Dale Robertson said he stands by his computer modeling, which shows that sewage plant cleanup ordered by the government in the 1980s didn't cut enough phosphorous.

Maumee River is the leading supplier of phosphorous into Lake Erie, with 82.6 percent of it coming from farms, according to Heidelberg.  The second largest source of phosphorus is the Detroit River, with nearly 75 percent coming from sewage-treatment plants.

According to the study, here is how it breaks down: 42.1 percent of Lake Erie's phosphorous comes from sewage, 43.6 coming from farms, while the remaining nearly 15% comes from decaying plant matter in forests and lawn fertilizer that gets washed into storm sewers.

Sandy Bihn of Lake Erie Waterkeeper said officials should order further phosphorous cuts at Detroit's sewage treatment plant. The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Ohio's largest farm trade group, was quick to concur. The federation has been saying that farms are not solely to blame for algae in Ohio's lakes and ponds.

It looks like farms and sewage are about equally responsible here, with farms having a slight edge. But the larger point, I think, is that we know what's causing the explosion of phosphorus in the lake, so rather than fight over who's more at fault, or point fingers, we need to take action NOW. For the sake of the lake, the health of our families, and out very future.

To really understand and appreciate the problem, read Lake Erie Death Watch by Barry Yeoman.

Here's what I don't understand: Millions of people like myself enjoy all that Lake Erie has to offer and appreciate its large significance as a source of sustainable fresh water for ourselves and future generations, as well as an engine of economic health for the many millions of people who live near its shores. Erie has more consumable fish than all the other Great Lakes combined, provides drinking water for 11 million people, and is a major recreational and tourist attraction. It's of one of Ohio’s top economic engines, providing thousands of jobs and nearly a billion dollars in economic activity to the state.

So why are we treating it like a sewer?

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