The Press Newspaper
If you’ve noticed that shoreline water along Maumee Bay is turning a shade of green, don’t be alarmed — yet.
Sandy Bihn, executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association, says algae blooms along the shoreline look bad under certain conditions, but they are not even close to levels reached in 2011.
Bihn describes the green lake water near the shoreline as “putrid,” but it could be worse.
“It’s not supposed to be as bad as 2011,” Bihn said. “Actually, I just collected it in a jar and took it to my speech in Pennsylvania, and the density of the algae of what we have now compared to what we had in 2011 is hugely different. Right now, it floats to the surface and is clear underneath, and in ’11 it went down 20 to 50 feet. So, it’s not nearly as dense or as abundant as it was in 2011, at least at this point.
“It comes and goes,” Bihn continued. “It doesn’t look bad today (Wednesday). What happens when the lake is very calm and it’s warm, it will flow to the top and you’ll see a lot of it. Today, it’s not even two-footers (waves) and you don’t see any algae at all because it mixes in.”
Changing agricultural practices and weather conditions are cited in a study as the likely causes of what is considered the largest harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie’s recorded history.
While not all algae is harmful, the type seen in the huge blooms in the western part of Lake Erie and other inland Ohio lakes can produce nerve and liver toxins, which are especially dangerous for pets, children, the elderly and those with comprised immune systems. The algae have already limited the use of three other Ohio lakes, as well as some Canadian beaches. The algae is fed by the rising water temperatures and phosphates commonly found in fertilizers.
Researchers at the University of Michigan and eight other institutions describe the 2011 algae bloom as a harbinger of things to come rather than an isolated occurrence.
The researchers found that intense spring rainstorms and the resulting runoffs from farm fields resulted in record-breaking levels of phosphorus, a nutrient in agricultural fertilizer that contributes to algae growth, washing into western Lake Erie.
The study says those conditions set the stage for an algae bloom that covered about 2,000 square miles at its peak in early October 2011 – about three times larger than other blooms to occur in the lake, including those that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.
“That is the largest single wastewater plant in the United States. That plant contributes alone five percent of the phosphorous to Lake Erie. With the bankrupt conditions in Detroit right now, they haven’t always maintained their equipment real well, so there are malfunctions, so sometimes we’ll get sewage bypassing the plant and going into the rivers and lakes,” Bihn alleges.
“There is still raw sewage. I have a picture this year showing sewage coming from one of the outfalls and going to the Detroit River and obviously going into Lake Erie. That plant continues to be an issue and a problem because it is such a huge source and it’s a single source where people can actually see it happen.
“The problem is they are broke, and there are technologies to reduce the problem and make the problem better but obviously they don’t have the wherewithal to do it and not willing to do it at this point,” Bihn claimed.
Bihn says the plant not only serves Detroit, but about 75 other communities.
“You look at this Detroit wastewater plant, and even though it’s called Detroit, it’s serving Rochester Hills and a lot of the more affluent areas, so don’t think of it as Detroit. It goes all the way to Flint, which is actually getting out of it. It’s a huge regional system. They are actually thinking of creating a regional authority to oversee it, which I think is prudent,” Bihn said.
In her executive director role, Bihn often travels to other lakeshore communities to discuss lake issues. Last week, she was invited to give a presentation during an environmental summer series at the Jefferson Center in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“It was probably one of the best places I’ve ever spoken,” Bihn said. “They said they had 20 sign up, and they were hoping to get 50. We had 72 people there who were really engaged. It was really a lot of fun and it went really well. They were happy with the speech and happy with the turnout and the questions were really great.
“We need people in our area to care about and engage more in the water than we have, and we are always trying to do that. In Erie, the problem is the bay there is full of algae right now. So, some of the conditions we have in the western basin are also in the eastern basin where the water is a lot deeper. But they are concerned.”
Elected state officials are also involved in protecting the league. State Rep. and former Oregon city councilman Michael Sheehy (D-Oregon) attended the Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Plan meeting at the Maumee Public Library last week.
As a long-time resident of the Maumee Bay area, Rep. Sheehy is concerned by the harmful algal blooms that are overtaking the Maumee Bay and greater Western Basin of Lake Erie year after year.
“This toxic blue-green algae is a huge threat to all Ohioans. Not only does it slow tourism and harm the fishing industry, but it poses a public health risk by contaminating water millions of Ohioans rely on for drinking. We have to take this seriously,” said Rep. Sheehy. “I just can’t imagine losing the lake, and if we don’t work together to solve this crisis, we will, and very soon. The restoration and protection of Ohio’s lakes must be a priority.”
Bihn said, “A lot of us want an annual report card of how much phosphorous is coming into the lake, how much has been reduced from each source, from each tributary, from each river, and are we gaining ground or losing ground in the big picture. Obviously, we don’t want this to keep happening. We don’t want adverse conditions or adverse publicity.”