But why the problem spiked in Ohio this year remains a mystery and why the algae bloomed on some lakes and not others is unclear.
Ohio scrambled to react to the unanticipated spread of algal toxins. It also had to create testing protocols and standards and to find the money to deal with the new health-environmental threat. Four state agencies were involved: Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
”It’s been an unusual year for Ohio, a watershed event year and a very stressful year,” said Mike Shelton of Natural Resources. ”It was frenetic . . . and we were often in a reactive mode.”
The system that was quickly put together — including a three-tiered warning system to protect the public — worked pretty well. But some changes are likely for next year, after the state agencies review what happened this year.
Dealing with the problem this year cost cash-strapped Ohio $190,000 for toxin tests. That doesn’t include the hours worked by state employees.
No one knows what triggered this year’s heavy blooms, but Ohio may have faced ”a perfect storm,” said Linda Merchant-Masonbrink of the Ohio EPA, the state’s point person on the algae.
Weather probably contributed. A rainy spring in northwestern Ohio contributed to the Lake Erie problems by washing high levels of dissolved phosphorus into the lake and triggering sewer overflows in Toledo and Detroit. Water temperatures were also warmer than usual in the spring. Summer temperatures were steaming.
There is another possibility: Ohio may have been hit especially hard this year because of state agencies expanding their search and finding the toxins more often, experts said.
Regardless, what happened in Ohio last summer may be a harbinger of what’s to come, and algal toxins are likely to become a recurring summer problem, says a national expert on the emerging issue that’s called harmful algal blooms.
”It’s not going to go away,” said Wayne Carmichael, an emeritus biology professor at Ohio’s Wright State University, ”It’s going to be more of a regular occurrence. . . . It’s something to which we need to pay more attention.”
He predicted that algae testing, monitoring and warnings will be a regular health-management step in the near future, much like the way health agencies check swimming beaches for E. coli bacteria and drinking water for safety standards.
He warned that algal blooms are a problem with no easy answers.
The major contributor to the growth of algae that can create such toxins is phosphorus from animal manure, farm runoff and lawn fertilizers, and reducing those pollution sources won’t be easy, said Dr. David Baker of Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research in Tiffin.