Friday, July 11, 2014

Expectant blue-green algae bloom threatens Lake Erie drinking water, fishing

Virtually every consumer of Lake Erie will almost certainly complain there's some nasty green stuff in the water this summer, making the resource's so-called “Dead Zone” an even larger grim reaper.

The federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced that Lake Erie - and thus its dependents – will likely encounter an above-average blue-green algae bloom.
Consequently, says NOAA, this year's algae bloom very well become among “the largest (such blooms) in more than a decade.”

The last time such a large and serious event happened in the lake's Central Basin was only three years ago: 2011, says Kevin Kayle, manager of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources/Division of Wildlife's Fairport Harbor Fisheries Research Station.

What such a toxic brew would mean if the federal government's scientific computer modeling stays the course is a larger-than-normal dissolved-oxygen depletion with a simultaneous increase in the lake's Dead Zone in Lake Erie, says Kayle.

“Part of what all of this means for us in this end of the lake is being concerned and watchful about the discharges from the Grand and Cuyahoga rivers and what nutrients they put into the lake,” Kayle said. “So if we see a large rain event that produces a heavy discharge of urban and rural oxygen-depleting nutrients, we could see a significant blue-green algae event.”

Such nutrients are the generator upon which the algae run. As the algae organisms die the process consumes the water's oxygen atoms which – in rough and general terms – had bonded themselves to the water molecules.

And without dissolved oxygen the lake's fishes will have to skedaddle, either moving higher up in the water column or else hightailing it to where the water is not so toxic, says Kayle.

“Yellow perch might even move up the water column by up to 20 feet just to find dissolved oxygen” he said.

Which means that anglers will not be able to simply drop their perch rigs unto the lake's floor and expect a hungry fish to snatch the bait. Instead, anglers will need to watch their fish finders and work at the never-easy-task of fishing for suspended perch, says Kayle.

Then too anglers may very will face the daunting task of locating perch, walleye and steelhead trout on a day-by-day basis. That is because a cloud of blue-green algae is never anchored in one location or consistent in size, shape and texture, says Kayle.

“It's a dynamic process, almost like watching a lava lamp” he said.

And though no massive and toxic cloud blue-green algae has yet to materialize, such an event may weeks – or just, days – away, says Kayle.

“It can happen anytime now where we'll get a hot, still period of weather,” Kayle said.
Of course more than just sport fishing is involved, notes scientists as well as advocates for a healthy Lake Erie.

“We clearly have heard that harmful algal blooms will continue to be a regular occurrence that threatens our drinking water and also robs economically important recreational opportunities around Lake, Erie,” says Adam Rissien, the director of Agriculture and Water Policy for the Ohio Environmental Council.

Rissien also says it is “unacceptable that nutrient pollution has been allowed to pollute Lake Erie so significantly that our drinking water is no longer safe without installing costly treatment options or hooking up alternative sources.”

And while nutrients come from a wide source of applicants the chief culprits are farm fields as well as even existing sewage plants. In the case of the former the unchecked, largely unregulated use of fertilizer is the blue-green algae's meal ticket, says Rissien.

Likewise, aged and under-equipped sewage systems are allowing even more nutrients to help the blue-green algae gorge itself on the bountiful energy source, says Rissien.

We simply can no longer afford to get to the point where we need regular updates or even access a cell phone app for Lake Erie's toxic algae forecast,” Rissien said. “As useful as those tools are, what we really need is an action plan to solve this problem once and for all,” Rissien says.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who  covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. During his 30 years with The News-Herald Jeff was the recipient of more than 100 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state.

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