Parts of Lake Erie are critically ill. The signs of sickness float on the surface of its warm and shallow western basin: blue-green algae blooms that contain a liver toxin, microcystin. Signs warn would-be swimmers to stay out of the water, away from the undulating scum off the beach at Maumee Bay State Park.
A year ago, scientists warned that the blooms would only worsen.
In western Ohio, they closed Grand Lake St. Marys, the state’s largest inland lake, where the concentration of microcystins reached more than 2,000 parts per billion. The World Health Organization cautions swimmers to stay out of water where concentrations exceed 20 parts per billion. That safety ratio shrinks to 1 part per billion for drinking water.
Today, parts of Lake Erie sport a bumper crop of cyanobacteria, or toxic blue-green algae blooms, the odiferous offspring of phosphorus flowing from farm runoff down the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, according to tests performed by Heidelberg University.
To protect Ohioans’ health, drinking water and a $10 billion-a-year tourism trade, this stream of phosphorus must be reduced by two-thirds, concludes a team of 12 scientists led by Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory and the Ohio Sea Grant College Program.
The scientists believe that goal is within reach if farmers and homeowners apply such common-sense safeguards as using only the amount of fertilizer that is necessary and working that fertilizer into the soil rather than spraying it over the land, especially when the earth is frozen or snow-covered.
The state needs to encourage farmers to adopt such practices. OSU extension agents should be equipped to guide them.
Such simple solutions could improve the health of Lake Erie as well as boost the bottom line for farmers and all who rely on Lake Erie for their livelihoods, drinking water and recreation.
By Plain Dealer Editorial Board