The Akron Beacon Journal
Researchers at Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory have provided more reason to worry about the health of Lake Erie. Or put another way, for state leaders to act with appropriate ambition and resources as they weigh how to move forward with the promising H2Ohio proposal advanced by Mike DeWine. The governor has in mind devoting $900 million in state money during the next decade to protect and improve state waterways, paying particular attention to Lake Erie.
The House currently has its eye on legislation that would take a much smaller step, setting up an endowment fund to support water quality. The Senate is working to produce its version of the two-year state budget. The hope is that once through the conference committee, the chambers sorting through the differences, the final budget will give high priority to water quality.
What did the researchers unveil for consideration? They documented for the first time the presence of a new brand of harmful algal blooms in the central basin of Lake Erie. The discovery is somewhat surprising because the cooler waters of the central basin, just west of Cleveland, are seen as less friendly to such algae.
In addition, the waters aren’t as nutrient-rich as the western basin near Toledo, where the phosphorous-heavy runoff from farmlands has played a large role in fueling the harmful algal blooms that have received much attention in recent years. Recall Toledo in 2014 shutting down its drinking water system due to the presence of toxic algae. So these new algal blooms are not a matter of algae drifting east along an expanse toward Cleveland.
They are a “unique toxic threat,” according to the researchers. The study warns that water treatment plants are not prepared to look for and detect the bacteria in the algae, or the toxins created. That means treatment plants will require upgrades in the form of more sophisticated and expensive equipment.
The researchers acknowledge they are not certain about the precise cause of these harmful algal blooms. They cite a complex set of factors, including low levels of iron, which should suppress the growth of algae, indicating the toxic variety may be more effective at processing iron in limited supply. They also note the muddier waters of the central basin may be at work, the harmful algae tending to expand in such conditions.
So there appears to be an argument for doing more to reduce sediments, not to mention conducting additional research. Most important, the discovery provides a reminder about the need for urgency in protecting Lake Erie. If there is more to learn about what is happening in the central basin, a strong case already exists for moving quickly to curb the flow of phosphorous into the western portion of the lake.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement long has called for such limits. Ohio, Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario have committed to a reduction of 40 percent by 2025, now just six years ahead. They have done so based on the recommendation of scientists. Yet little has been set in motion to indicate they will reach the target. For its part, Ohio keeps looking for an easy way, state lawmakers and others talking about incentives and voluntary action, especially from farming and livestock operations, leading sources of the phosphorous. Yet such an approach neglects past lessons about the need for resources and enforceable regulation.
What the most recent findings of the Stone Laboratory reinforce is that the condition of Lake Erie easily can get worse, putting at risk both a source of many livelihoods and a natural treasure that one generation has an obligation to preserve for the next.