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Lake Erie Algae Blooms Predicted To Be Less Severe This Year, But Much Work Left To Do

Algae blooms on the coast of Toledo.
NASA Glenn Research Center
Algae blooms on the coast of Toledo.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts this summer’s harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie will measure between 4-5.5 on its severity scale – lower than 2019 levels, but still above the federal agency’s goal.

Noticeable blooms are expected on Lake Erie this year, according to NOAA researcher Rick Stumpf, but the water should remain largely safe to the public. The agency is expecting the bloom to fall closer to 4.5 this year.

“Much of the lake will be fine most of the time,” Stumpf said. “Blooms are mostly in the western basin, but even there, they move around a lot with the wind.”

This year’s record high water levels are not impacting the expected severity of the bloom, Stumpf said.

NOAA detected a small bloom near downtown Toledo over the weekend, but it is currently considered low intensity.

Farmers can implement nutrient management plans to decrease the amount of fertilizer pollution that ends up in the lake, said National Center for Water Quality Research director Laura Johnson.

“How much do you apply on the ground to make sure you’re not over-applying, but you’re feeding crops and it’s in the right location?” Johnson said. “Those types of questions, they might take some time to really be able to have an effect.”

Even if those practices are widespread, Johnson said, previous years of farming practices and pollution can still have an impact on the amount of nutrient pollution in Lake Erie each summer, resulting in harmful algae.

This year’s measurements for two types of phosphorous that contribute to blooms were below 2019 levels, Johnson said, but still fell within or above recorded levels from 2002 to 2018.

Back in 2015, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario set a goal to reduce nutrient pollution by 20% by 2020, and 40% by 2025. But groups advocating for environmental reform argue not enough is being done to reach that goal.

A press release issued collectively by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Freshwater Future, Michigan Environmental Council and Ohio Environmental Council called on local governments to do more to protect Lake Erie.

“Today’s results show very plainly that little progress is being made, and we are very far off from achieving this goal,” the press release said.

The 20% reduction would not be possible under intervention methods implemented previously, said Sandra Kosik-Sills with the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.

“The increase in excess phosphorous loading developed over many years and millions of acres land and water management practices changed,” Kosik-Sills said. “The solution, we feel, will take some time.”

The H2Ohio program announced by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine last year aims to improve efforts to reduce pollution once it is fully underway, Kosik-Sills said, providing additional help to reach the 2025 goal.