Lake Erie is under attack.Toxic algae blooms cover its surface; “dead zones” where fish can’t survive grow beneath the waves; and invasive species crowd out its native plants, fish and mussels.
All of these threats are manmade, some of them are reversible and one was thought fixed three decades ago but has returned.
What will it take to save Erie? A concerted effort among state and federal agencies, comprehensive farming regulations and hundreds of millions of dollars, experts say.
What’s at stake? Lake Erie and the Great Lakes supply one-fifth of the world’s fresh water and attract billions of dollars in tourism.
“Lake Erie doesn’t have the built-in money mechanisms to help protect it,” said Sandy Bihn, director of the Toledo-based Lake Erie Waterkeeper advocacy group.
“Yet this is the most important place for people to understand and watch.”
The major threats to all the lakes include invasive species that throw a delicate ecosystem out of balance. In Erie, more so than the other lakes, toxic algae threaten the health of visitors and create “dead zones” where no aquatic species can survive.
At least 136 invasive species — plants, fish and mussels — have forever changed the lakes. But it’s the potential 137th invader that officials fear the most.The Asian carp wants nothing more than to spread through the Great Lakes and continue its feeding frenzy. Though a live fish has yet to be found, DNA tests suggest that they might already have infiltrated Lake Erie.
While officials hope to hold off the carp, they are struggling with toxic algae.Heavy spring rains that wash fertilizers off farm fields help a toxic blue-green algae blossom into a massive stain that can stretch from Toledo to Cleveland.Government officials say their commitment and funding to save Lake Erie has never been greater.
“We’re accomplishing things that were undreamed of just five years ago,” said Chris Korleski, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office and former Ohio EPA director.
But will it be enough to save Erie for the 13 million people in the United States and Canada who rely on it for drinking water? And the thousands who make their livings on the lake?
Dave Spangler owns Dr. Bugs Charters out of Oak Harbor. He said the threat he most worries about is the carp.
“If they do get into the lake, they will basically destroy the bottom of the food chain,” Spangler said recently from aboard his boat as it churned through choppy lake waters. “They’d pretty much wipe out my business.”But he also fears the algae that hindered his business in 2011.
“It was so thick that, at times, it slowed the boat down,” he said. “People looked at it and they said ‘We’ll come back when this isn’t here.’??”
The trouble with Erie
As the shallowest Great Lake, Erie offers more habitats for fish and plants and creates a welcoming home for invasive species.The shallow water also helps toxic algae thrive in warm summer months.Spangler, 65, said he is optimistic that the lake can be saved because it has been saved before.
Erie was on life support in the 1970s, a victim of massive summertime algae blooms fed by phosphorus in farm runoff and raw sewage from city treatment plants.A 1983 water-quality agreement ratified by the United States and Canada called for an annual cut of more than 12,100 tons in phosphorus, and state and federal EPAs enforced strict limits pertaining to sewage-treatment plants.
And, at the urging of officials and water conservation groups, hundreds of Lake Erie-area farmers voluntarily changed tilling practices to reduce the amount of phosphorus that washed away with dirt from their fields.
The two-pronged strategy worked.For a while.
After years of relatively clean water, toxic blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, reappeared in Lake Erie in 2000 and have grown worse nearly every summer since.
A growing dead zone
The blooms peaked in the summer of 2011 as microcystis, a particularly nasty algae species, covered 1,600 square miles, or roughly 16 percent of the lake.
The algae produce a liver toxin that was so concentrated in some areas that the state posted signs along beaches warning swimmers not to swallow any water.
It gets worse. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom of the lake, where they decay and rob the water of oxygen, creating a dead zone in which no fish can live.
This dead zone was suspected of killing tens of thousands of fish that washed up on beaches near Ontario that September.
Researchers tracked the new blooms to phosphorus found in chemical fertilizers that wash off farm fields into field drains and ditches and eventually the lake.
Researchers at Heidelberg University, Ohio State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this phosphorus floats in the water, where it is easily absorbed by microcystis.
“It seems to be the phosphorus that enters the lake in the spring that really has the direct impact on the size of the algal growth,” said Ken Krieger, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg.
That model was verified this summer, when Ohio’s near-drought conditions meant rain could not send as much phosphorus down the Maumee and Sandusky rivers to Erie. The lake bloom was roughly one-tenth the size of last summer’s.
A wet spring is all that’s needed to bring the giant blooms back, said Jeffrey Reutter, director of Ohio State’s Sea Grant Program and the Lake Erie-based Stone Laboratory.
A relentless carp
In the absence of algae, a new, equally worrisome threat emerged this summer. It came in the form of environmental DNA tests of Lake Erie water that showed positive results for Asian carp.
More than 410 water samples showed no Asian carp DNA in Lake Erie. But six tests came back positive, which were enough to scramble officials to the lake to search for the species.In August, state officials spent a week shocking areas of Maumee and Sandusky bays to check for the carp among the stunned fish. They also drew 500 water samples from the bays.Overkill? Hardly.
In 1993, floods along the Mississippi River allowed Asian carp to escape from nearby fish farms.The fish out-eats everything and now dominates stretches of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
The fish have been found in streams just outside Chicago, where an electric barrier is all that keeps the species from reaching Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes.In Indiana, environmental advocates fear a flood in the Wabash River could help the fish swim through Eagle Marsh, a wetland near Fort Wayne, and into the headwaters of the Maumee River system, a direct path to Lake Erie.
The U.S. EPA and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service spent $200,000 to build an 8-foot-tall chain link fence that extends more than 1,200 feet through Eagle Marsh. The project was completed in 2010.“The game is to keep them from getting in” Lake Erie, said Rich Carter, fish-management and research administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “Once they get here, our control options are zilch.”
So why do DNA tests suggest Asian carp are in Erie? The DNA might have come from Asian-carp scales, mucus or feces. It doesn’t mean that a breeding population of carp is in the lake.
Lake full of invaders
As government officials looked for Asian carp in August, their boats floated past marshy inlets choked with phragmites — tall, European reeds that grow so thick, they suffocate native plants.
Below their boats, the lake bottom is teeming with zebra and quagga mussels. These natives of the Caspian Sea reproduce so quickly that they clog the intake pipes of power stations and city water-treatment plants.
The dozens of foreign fish, mussel and plant species have been in the Great Lakes since the 1800s, arriving in the ballast tanks of ships coming from foreign ports.Thirteen species, including an aggressive bottom-feeding fish from the Black Sea called the round goby, have arrived in Lake Erie since 1987. Officials fear more invaders are on the way.
In November 2011, the U.S. EPA proposed a permit that would require commercial vessels to treat their ballast-tank water. The permit also includes different limits on the number of live organisms that could legally be released to U.S. waters.
The proposed limits are no different from regulations that the U.S. Coast Guard currently enforces, said Andy Buchsbaum, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“The risk is still there,” Buchsbaum said. “The only purely safe way is to have zero discharge."
A new commitment?
In 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative took effect, and Congress committed hundreds of millions of dollars across 11 federal agencies to address these problems.
A Dispatch analysis shows that these agencies spent $74.3 million on Lake Erie in 2010. Since January 2011, Erie projects have totaled $13.4 million.
Korleski, of the U.S. EPA, attributes the drop in funding to the federal government’s ongoing budget problems.Funding for all of the Great Lakes dropped from $475 million in 2010 to $299 million in 2011 and 2012, Korleski said.
Funding “is something we have to fight for every year,” said Jeff Skelding, campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents 115 environmental and conservation groups.
“It’s very clearly getting harder,” Skelding added.
Korleski said that before the initiative, the Great Lakes Legacy Act provided about $10 million a year to clean up industrial pollutants.
“Historically, there was never any funding for the invasive-species issues or habitat restorations,” he said.
The new grants also include $16.9 million that the U.S. Department of Agriculture set aside in 2010 to fund projects to reduce phosphorus runoff from Ohio farms.
Gerald Whipple, a farmer near Oak Harbor in Ottawa County, was paid $34 an acre to help plant cover crops on his 400-acre farm. Plants such as cereal rye remain rooted in fields through the winter and help absorb phosphorus that otherwise would run off farm fields during spring rains.
Whipple’s farm also features buffer zones where grass replaced crops along streams and drains.
“We are all stewards of the soil and stewards of the environment,” said Whipple, a third-generation farmer. “I’m very passionate about what I do.”
But most farmers don’t participate in programs to reduce runoff. High corn prices provide an incentive to grow crops on as much land as possible, including close to streams.
Researchers and environmental advocates say they doubt voluntary farm programs will work.“If we have a wet spring next year, or even a normal spring next year, the problem is going to be right back,” said Reutter, of Ohio State.
But Larry Antosch, environmental-policy director for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said voluntary plans work best because mandates are too inflexible.
“Regulations usually are a one-size-fits-all type of approach,” Antosch said. “We’d like to be able to offer multiple options; something that fits into the farmers’ business plans, soil types and where they fit into the watershed.”
Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally acknowledged that not everyone is on the same page concerning regulations.
“Everyone agrees there’s a problem. Everyone is in agreement that we need to do something,” he said.
He said his agency will try to build a consensus with the help of two state-formed Lake Erie task forces. Nally also said that some measures to help clean up the lake are now under way, including an effort to encourage Lake Erie area farmers to find ways to reduce fertilizers.
“There are some things we know we can do today,” Nally said. “We’re going to have to build this car as we drive it down the road.”