Ohio Continues its Efforts to Address Algal Blooms in Lake Erie

Algal blooms in Lake Erie have resurfaced as a major problem in recent years. Large algal blooms can even be viewed from satellite images. (Photo: Courtesy of NOAA)

Considerable effort and funding has been directed at studying the causes of the problem. Efforts are now under way to try and address the issue. One such effort is the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative, which is under the management of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The purpose of the initiative is to collaborate with farmers and other stakeholders to understand the problem better and develop programs that could address the root causes of algal blooms. 

In an interview with the Ohio Environmental Law Blog, Chris Abbruzzese, Deputy Director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, provided additional background about the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative.  

From Ohio EPA’s perspective, please provide an explanation of what the Agency believes is happening and where it thinks the problem is coming from?

Thirty years ago farmers, municipalities and industries in the Western Lake Erie Basin made significant efforts to cut the amount of phosphorus and sediment loading into Lake Erie by 50 percent. However, the dissolved form of phosphorus entering Ohio’s waterways from a variety of sources in the area remains an issue, resulting in increased occurrences of algal blooms. Over the last several years the increased frequency of algal blooms has had a significant impact in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, threatening its ecological integrity and creating a more challenging economic climate.

An algal bloom is a rapid increase in the population of algae, often as a result of excess nutrients, primarily phosphorus and nitrogen. Sources of nutrients include fertilizers used on farms and lawns, sewage treatment plants, faulty septic tanks & other home sewage treatment systems and some industrial operations. Some algal blooms can become toxic, potentially making the water unsafe for human contact or consumption. These toxic blooms create nuisance conditions that interfere with recreation and may cause fish kills when dead organic matter decays and depletes oxygen in the water. Public water supplies have water treatment plants that remove algal toxins but high levels of algal organic matter causes taste and odor problems and the formation of harmful by-products that must be controlled. All of this significantly increases the cost of providing safe drinking water supplies.    

 Under the direction of Governor Kasich, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency established the Clean Lakes Ohio Initiative this year to address these concerns.

What programs will the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative establish?

The Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative will: educate and encourage farmers to use good nutrient stewardship; expand the use of on-the-ground practices to help control the displacement of agricultural nutrients; expand the frequency and type of soil testing; and create a monitoring network to implement and access the effectiveness of management practices.

How do farmers view the Initiative?

Ohio farmers are stepping up to the plate to learn more about nutrient management and about modern conservation technologies. The Ohio Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers across the state to adopt the 4R Nutrient Stewardship model to reduce excess nutrients in the state’s waterways. Good nutrient stewardship not only benefits the environment, it also benefits farmers by saving money and time instead of applying unnecessary or excessive fertilizer to the field.

Studies indicate that the timing of fertilizer application and how well it is incorporated into the soil layer can significantly reduce dissolved phosphorus runoff. Being more conscious of what is going into the fields, when it is going into the fields and how it is going into the fields will maintain agricultural integrity while improving water quality.

Such an initiative could be controversial with the agricultural industry. How is the state trying to work with agri-business?

The Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Department of Natural Resources are exploring partnerships with the agribusiness industry to expand the frequency and type of soil testing being used. For example, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has worked with farmers in Wood, Henry, Hancock, Putnam and Defiance counties to enroll over 18,000 acres of farmland in a new soil testing initiative.

Due to size of the Lake Erie Basin, this seems like it’s more of a regional issue than an Ohio specific issue. Is there anything being done across the region to address the issue?

Yes. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency directors met last spring with their counterparts from Michigan and USEPA to discuss issues related to improving water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin. A lot of good ideas were shared and several other organizations are also interested in improving the water quality in Lake Erie. The International Joint Commission Water Quality Board is in the process of developing a plan to improve water quality in Lake Erie.

Also, in August, Ohio joined Indiana and Kentucky in a pilot multi-state water quality trading plan to reduce the run-off of agricultural nutrients. The Ohio River Basin Water Quality Project Pilot Trading Plan is the first consensus plan for interstate trading to reduce nutrients. The agreement provides businesses and municipalities with a more economically viable option to efficiently reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading in rivers, lakes and streams while providing the agricultural community more resources to implement conservation and best management practices in a watershed. The experience from this pilot plan can be used in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

 [For more information on the initiative please see cleanlakes.ohio.gov]