The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its research partners are predicting that western Lake Erie will experience a significant harmful algal bloom this summer, potentially reaching levels last seen in 2013 and 2014, although smaller than the record bloom of 2015.
This year’s bloom is expected to measure 7.5 on the severity index but could range between 6.5 and 9.0. An index above five indicates a potentially harmful bloom. The severity index is based on a bloom’s biomass — the amount of its harmful algae — over a sustained period. The largest blooms, in 2011 and 2015, were rated 10.0 and 10.5, respectively.
The size of a bloom isn’t necessarily an indication of how toxic it is. The toxins in a large bloom may not be as concentrated as in a smaller bloom. NOAA is currently developing tools to predict how toxic blooms will be.
The predicted bloom is expected to appear in the far western basin of Lake Erie in late July and increase in early August, although heavy rains in mid-July may push the late-July bloom farther into the basin. Most of the rest of the lake will be unaffected.
“A bloom of this size is evidence that the research and outreach efforts currently underway to reduce nutrient loading, optimize water treatment and understand bloom dynamics need to continue,” said Christopher Winslow, director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, which is based at The Ohio State University.
“Despite the predicted size of this year’s bloom, much of the lake will be algae free throughout the bloom season, and the lake remains a key asset for the state,” Winslow said.
Greg LaBarge, agronomic systems field specialist with Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences (CFAES), said the college’s efforts to help reduce algal blooms include developing a Farmer Sampling Network in western Lake Erie’s watershed. For that project, LaBarge and his partners in the college are working with 56 area farmers to collect data on how crop selection, irrigation and soil management affect the runoff of phosphorus and other nutrients from their fields. Phosphorus runoff is a main cause of the blooms.
“We don’t have a single source we can go after,” LaBarge said. “There are multiple different sources and ways that phosphorus from fields can get into the water, but farmers generally are looking for the best way to keep it on the land, because they paid for it.”
Fertilizer training, other efforts continue
In 2015, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario signed the Western Lake Erie Basin Collaborative Agreement to achieve a 40% reduction in the amount of phosphorus entering western Lake Erie by 2025, and efforts continue to work toward that goal.
Ohio’s Fertilizer Applicator Certification Training (FACT) program has, at last count, trained 16,472 Ohio farmers and others on the best practices for applying fertilizer and manure. Spurred by an algal bloom-caused water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014, FACT was established by Senate Bill 150. It is meant to reduce nutrient runoff into Lake Erie and other waters and is being provided by the college’s outreach arm: Ohio State University Extension.
The deadline to complete FACT, which is required of farmers who apply fertilizer to more than 50 acres, is Sept. 30. About 20 training opportunities are still available.
A number of scientists at Ohio State — in CFAES as well as in the colleges of engineering, public health and arts and sciences — are studying harmful algal blooms and how to stop them. Projects include developing two new apps that help farmers manage costs, optimize yields and minimize nutrient runoff, studying whether algal bloom toxins are getting into the fish people eat and developing improved, cost-effective ways for water treatment operators to remove bloom toxins.
In June, Michigan state leaders announced a draft Domestic Action Plan for Lake Erie, which was crafted by the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) as well as the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources. The plan aims to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to help prevent persistent, intense algal blooms in the western part of the lake, including those that are unsafe for people, and address low dissolved oxygen in the central basin of Lake Erie.
According to MDARD director Jamie Clover Adams, Michigan’s plan outlines current efforts and articulates concrete actions the state will take to improve Lake Erie.
“Although state agencies and other stakeholders are conducting more and better research on the Western Lake Erie Basin and improving best practices for agriculture and wastewater treatment, our Domestic Action Plan lays out additional key strategies for wetland restoration, invasive species research, tightened permit requirements for sewage treatment facilities and customized farm operations,” Clover Adams said.
Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, encouraged cooperative action across local, state and national governments to benefit Lake Erie.
“Lake Erie is one of Michigan’s defining natural resources,” Creagh said. “If we want to ensure that the lake continues to be a source of drinking water and a great place for recreation for the region and the state, it is imperative that we work together to provide solutions.”
The final version of Michigan’s Domestic Action Plan, along with plans from other Lake Erie Basin states (Indiana, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania), will be integrated into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s comprehensive plan, which is scheduled for release in February 2018.
Some projects are detailed in the second-year report, released July 11, of the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative. More than 33 research teams from Ohio State, the University of Toledo, Kent State University and other Ohio colleges are part of the effort.
NOAA’s annual Lake Erie algal bloom forecast is part of an ecological forecasting initiative that aims to deliver accurate, relevant, timely and reliable ecological forecasts directly to coastal resource managers and the public.
“The Lake Erie harmful algal bloom forecast is another example of NOAA’s ongoing efforts to provide science-based information to water managers and public health officials as they make decisions to protect their communities,” said Russell Callender, assistant NOAA administrator for the National Ocean Service. “We will continue to work with our partners to bring the most accurate data and tools to future forecasts for the region.”