Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

Tap water & the key issues the Drink Up campaign misses

young girl we love lake erie sign

I wrote another guest post for Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ on the Drink Up campaign and the issues it misses. Check it out at their site. Here’s a snippet:

As other contributors have noted on this blog, bottled water carries a host of negative consequences – one of the most important of these involves issues of inequity. Bottled water tends to cost roughly 240 to 10,000 times per gallon than tap water. This occurs despite the fact that roughly one-third of bottled water is simply packaged municipal tap water.

African-American and Hispanic parents are three times more likely to give their children exclusively bottled water, despite this high cost. They report doing this because they perceive it as being cleaner and safer than tap water (the evidence suggests otherwise). The industry has also sought to position its product as a status symbol. Nestle recently introduced “Resource,” a bottled water for women who are “trendy” and “higher-income.”

young girl we love lake erie sign

A participant in DLDT’s WaveMaker program holds a sign celebrating Lake Erie as part of the World Water Day 2012 celebration (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.)

Additionally, the piece got picked up by EcoWatch, a leading grassroots environmental news organization that is based in Cleveland. Thanks to Stefanie Spear from EcoWatch for helping to spread the piece around.

If we could avoid coating Lake Erie in a permanent layer of toxic algae, that would be great

So I wanted to discuss this issue in my post on lake levels in the Great Lakes, but length became a factor. Fortunately, two recent articles touched on the topic, so it gave me an opportunity to circle back to it.

First, two officials from the Cuyahoga Water and Soil Conservation District published an op-ed in The Plain Dealer on Sunday that discussed the disturbing rise in algal blooms on Lake Erie during recent years. As the author’s noted, Lake Erie and other inland lakes in Northern Ohio, including Grand Lake St. Mary’s, have become enveloped in large blue-green algal blooms. The issue became particularly acute in 2011 and 2012, largely due to extremely high temperatures during the latter and heavy precipitation in the former.

A satellite photo showing Lake Erie taken by NOAA on June 14. If you look at the bottom left portion of the image (Northwest Ohio), you can clearly see blue-green algal blooms growing already on the lake surface (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

A satellite photo showing Lake Erie taken by NOAA on June 14. If you look at the bottom left portion of the image (Northwest Ohio), you can clearly see blue-green algal blooms growing already on the lake surface (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

The most obvious cause for these algal blooms is the excessive application of chemical fertilizers on farms and, to a lesser extent, residential lawns in Northern Ohio. Farmers in Northwest Ohio, in particular, have switched to no-till practices in order to reduce soil erosion. Unfortunately, no-till farming typically requires even larger chemical inputs, as the soil is not turned over. No-till soil is also more susceptible to chemical runoff during precipitation events. It appears likely that commercial agriculture is the main culprit, as the Great Lakes are phosphorus-constrained environments, and agricultural fertilizers are rich in chemical phosphates. The algal blooms that have resulted threaten a $10 billion tourism industry in the region, pose a threat to public health, harm commercial fishing, and increase the costs of water treatment.

In related news, Scientific American published a piece today on a recent study examining the effects of climate change and rising water temperatures on nine large lakes in Austria. These lakes are vital for tourism, industry, and the ecology of the region. The region has warmed at a rate 3.5 times higher than the global average since 1980, and the study argues that surface water temperature (SWT) in these lakes will rise by at least 2°C through 2050. This rise in poses a major challenge to the ecology of the lakes. From the SciAm piece:

“The predicted changes in surface water temperatures will affect the thermal characteristics of the lakes,” said Dokulil. “Warmer water temperatures could lead to enhanced nutrient loads and affect water quality by promoting algal blooms and impairing the biological functions of aquatic organisms.

Interestingly (though, perhaps, not surprisingly), the CWSCD officials largely sidestepped the role of climate change in the algal blooms on Lake Erie. That said, the Austrian study makes it clear that, while it may not be the predominant issue to worry about at the moment (and it’s not one that local conservation officials can actively address), climate change does compound the anthropogenic impacts and will only get worse in the future.

Research suggests that SWT have increased at a significantly faster rate that air temperatures in the Great Lakes region. According to a 2007 study (PDF) from Jay A. Austin & Stephen M. Colman in Geophysical Research Letters, SWT on Lake Superior rose by 2.5°C from 1979-2006, a rate that was “significantly in excess of regional atmospheric warming.” The authors argue that this outcome largely stems from an increased albedo effect due to declining lake ice cover during this period. To make matters worse, they conclude by noting that, at the current rate of decline, Lake Superior will be completely ice free during the winter within the next three decades.

The number of days with extreme precipitation has increased through the country in recent years. The Midwest saw a substantial rise of 27% during this period (courtesy of the U.S. Global Change Research Program).

The number extreme precipitation days has increased through the country in recent years. The Midwest saw a 27% increase from 1958-2007 (courtesy of the U.S. Global Change Research Program).

This study accords with other research on these issues within the Great Lakes region. According to an excellent 2003 review (PDF) from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region, ice cover will continue to decrease dramatically on Lakes Erie and Superior in the coming decades. By 2030, up to 61% of winters could be ice free on Lake Erie; by 2090, this number could reach a staggering 96%.

Moreover, while there hasn’t been a large amount of research done in the past few years, a handful of studies from the 1990s and early 2000s suggest that SWTs in the Great Lakes may jump by another 1-7°C. Combine these higher SWTs with more extreme precipitation events, and we have a recipe for even more massive algal outbreaks.

We already know that extreme precipitation has increased by roughly 20% in the Central US over the last century. This trend is projected to continue into the future, particularly during the winter and spring months; runoff produced during these seasons largely controls the extent of algal growth during the summer months.

Considerable evidence exists to suggest that Cleveland will be well positioned to withstand the most severe effects of climate change, and the city may even see an influx of migrants from other, harder hit areas of the country. However, as I have argued ad nauseum, the city needs to be proactive to ensure that it will be prepared for the challenges that await it. The draft Climate Action Plan is a start, but it needs to put more focus on adapting to climate changes, lest we squander our best natural asset – Lake Erie.

Algae blooming on Lake Erie during the massive bloom that developed in 2011 (courtesy of The Plain Dealer).

Algae blooming on Lake Erie during the massive bloom that developed in 2011 (courtesy of The Plain Dealer).