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Farmers watching Lake Erie algal bloom forecast for 2018

By Matt Reese

Even if they have never hooked a walleye or basked in the sun on a Lake Erie beach, many farmers took a keen interest in today’s algal bloom forecast — especially after yesterday’s Kasich Administration announcement about new measures targeting agriculture and Lake Erie water quality.

“Compared to the last couple of years this will be a more moderate bloom than last year, or 2015 or 2011, definitely,” said Richard Stumpf, NOAA oceanographer. “But any bloom is not good. There will be scum out there but not like we saw last year.”

NOAA and its research partners predict that western Lake Erie will experience a harmful algal bloom (HAB) of cyanobacteria of a 6 on the severity index, with a range between 5 and 7.5. The severity index is based on a bloom’s biomass over a sustained period. The largest blooms, 2011 and 2015, were 10 and 10.5, respectively. Last year’s bloom had a severity of 8.

Bloom size and toxicity do not always correlate, however.

“A big question is about the toxicity and right now we can’t forecast that. It is about not only how much bloom there is but also how much toxicity the individual cells are producing. In 2014 the algae cells were producing lot of toxin and they did it earlier and that is why they had the problem in Toledo. In some years, there is much less toxin produced by the cells,” Stumpf said. “We are trying to pin down the timing too. This year it appears that the bloom is a little earlier and also the blooms tend to change through the season. So there may be a period where it is stronger and then weakens.”

As more is learned about HAB, more insights into addressing the nutrient loss situations on farms are being gained. Greg LaBarge, a CCA with Ohio State University Extension, was on hand at the algal bloom forecast event today to address questions about the role of agricultural nutrient loss and measures being taken to address those challenges.

“The big thing for us is that every acre needs to have implemented on it the 4R nutrient stewardship concepts thinking about it both from a crop production standpoint as well as an environmental standpoint. We need to keep that rate where it needs to be to produce crops and think about placement of that somewhere off the surface of the soil. We can even think about multi-year applications if we keep it off the surface,” LaBarge said. “The source, both manure and commercial fertilizer, can be managed with rates that correspond to what our agronomic need is. The other thing we need to think about is managing the water in relation to what is coming off of the field. That will be the next thing we need to do to refine and start really focusing in on those higher contributing fields and putting practices where they need to be.”

Today’s Lake Erie forecast is part of a NOAA ecological forecasting initiative that aims to deliver accurate, relevant, timely and reliable ecological forecasts directly to coastal resource managers and the public. Rainfall from March through July is one of the factors considered in several models used for predicting the algal bloom.

“The rain drives the runoff which produces the loads in the rivers. So if you have a particularly wet spring you have a higher load of phosphorus going into rivers, which go into the Lake. It was wet in May and sort of average in March and April and June was intense then dry then intense then dry,” Stumpf said. “When it was intense it seemed bad, but it averaged out overall. We actually had a fairly average year for total rainfall, just not average every month. We don’t look at the rainfall intensity. We look at what ends up in the rivers. The rainfall gives us an indication, but we are ultimately looking at what goes in the rivers.”

Warm temperatures did give the HAB a head start this year, which is being closely watched by researchers. In recent years, visible blooms have not appeared until late July or early August. This year, Lake Erie’s western basin warmed almost two weeks earlier than usual, reaching 70 degrees the last week of May, leading to the appearance of a small bloom.

“This early start does not change the forecast severity, because the bloom is determined by the amount of phosphorus that goes into the water,” Stumpf said.

And, like everyone else listening to today’s forecast, Stumpf is hoping for solutions.

“Lake Erie is Ohio’s Lake. Everybody enjoys the Lake and from what I have seen, the agricultural community wants to help,” he said. “Once we figure out the right way to address this, let’s go and get it done.”

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