Chris Winslow, director of Ohio State University’s Stone Lab on Lake Erie, holds up water samples to show the algae levels from a large algae bloom.

Challenging situations on both ends of the river in water quality struggle

Secret fishing spots are guarded more closely than cherished family recipes. Instead of the corn and soybean markets, they talk about the walleye catch and the perch numbers. Instead of high dollar tractors, they buy bigger, better boats.

For the people around Lake Erie, that productive blue green expanse on Ohio’s northern border is their life, food, water, career, heritage, recreation, and home. In short, is sort of like your farm is to you.

So, when the people of Lake Erie see their way of life marred by a slick, poisonous green nightmare, it is not something they take lightly. Then they see the convincing (and legitimate) numbers of extensive water quality monitoring pointing squarely to agriculture as a leading culprit. They don’t take that lightly, either.

Toxic algae need phosphorus (P) to grow, and while there is still room for debate about the exact contributions of various sources, there is no doubt that agriculture is one of the culprits sending P down the river to the lake — from your farms to theirs.

Farmers know that the solutions to this problem are not simple in the fields, but the challenges with the algae on the lake are not simple either. Kelly Frey is the Ottawa County Water Sanitary Engineer and has been at the plant since 1980. Not far along into his time there, he started work to implement a new treatment facility to improve drinking water quality for the residents and the growing number of tourists coming to the county. In 1999 the new, conventional water system was implemented and all seemed well. The system takes water from an intake at the mouth of the Portage River 1,800 feet off shore where it is eight to 10 feet deep.

“Then in the last few years comes the algae issue. It clogs everything up and we have to take that out of the water. It creates plant operation problems, increases costs and reduces efficiency and supply,” Frey said. “It clogs filters twice as fast as normal and the extra gallons we thought we had for expansion are now needed to allow extra time and resources for addressing the algae problem. This is creating issues with trying to anticipate what will happen in the future and how we will manage it. The biggest problem we see is on our sand filters. The algae is very fine and hard to filter. The challenge is just dealing with the amounts of algae that we have — trying to deal with the accumulation that is coming into our plant and treat it and be cost effective. Our costs have accelerated and actually doubled in terms of our chemical costs during the algae season.”

Costs also have increased in terms of time and safety.

“It has slowed down our processes in our plant to the point where we are taking almost twice as long to treat the water so our capacities are down. It is very tedious and there is a lot of room for error,” Frey said. “We are trying to protect public safety by providing the best drinking water we can and assure them that it is safe to drink, but the magnitude is so much more than was ever anticipated when the plant was designed. I think that is true for all of the plants along the lake.”

The algae itself is a tremendous problem for water quality, but the mycrocystin toxin it creates are even more challenging.

“It is creating a tremendous burden on us being able to treat it and take the toxins out of the water. Part of the toxin removal is through filtration and it is very hard to predict,” he said. “The mycrocystin issue is a real mystery for us. There is no specific guideline as to how to treat this and there is not much history with this. It is not something you can see. Testing is very cumbersome. It takes almost eight hours to get results back and the tests are not always accurate. We do the best we can with that. There is a lot of gray area out there that we have not seen before. We really need more information about the levels and how high they can get.”

As his list of water treatment headaches grows, Frey is looking for potential causes of the problem, and targeted solutions.

“It is important for Ohio’s farmers to realize the situation that the water industry is in. This is something that is not going away and needs to be addressed. It is affecting everyone here in terms of safety. I appreciate what the farm community is doing and I appreciate the efforts they are making, but I can tell you that the lake is not getting better. The efforts from the farm community and municipalities are good, but they are not enough,” he said. “If it is believed that was is being done is good enough, I can tell you from first hand experience that it is not. We have to do a better job, all of us, in making the water safer and less nutrient loaded to reduce the algae to the point where it is not a threat to our drinking water system. Until this nutrient overload is stopped, this problem will get worse.”

And, there is no doubt that agriculture is a significant part of the problem, often blamed for 65% to 85% of the phosphorous flowing into the Western Lake Erie Basin from the Maumee River. Tests are being developed to better hone in on the exact source of the P in the water.

“There is research coming out on phosphorus fingerprinting so we can track the specific P itself,” said Chris Winslow, interim director of Ohio State University’s Stone Lab on Lake Erie. “Is it coming from manure, septic tank failures, commercial fertilizer, or other human sources? There is potential moving forward that when we find P in the water we can ascertain its actual source.”

This tool could be helpful in the ongoing broad effort to reduce to phosphorus loading in the Western Lake Erie Basin — specifically from the Maumee River watershed — by 40% of the levels found in the water in 2008.

“We are looking at 2008 because that was one of our wetter years. Typically you only see that amount of rainfall every 10 years or so. There are always extreme weather conditions where you still could see blooms with the kinds of reductions were are looking for, but when we put recommendations in place to manage nutrients, we want to put that nutrient reduction in a situation that is a high rain anomaly. That way if we can do a 40% reduction based on what we saw in that year, in most years — nine times out of 10 — you’ll see a bloom that has fairly low concentrations, like what we saw in 2012,” Winslow said. “The target of a 40% reduction from 2008 concentrations you would see entering the water should reduce scares of the huge toxic events we have been seeing.  As the climate changes

The staff at Stone Lab uses this boat to conduct various research projects in Lake Erie.
The staff at Stone Lab uses this boat to conduct various research projects in Lake Erie.

we are seeing more frequent storms, though, and we may discover that looking at 2008 for the 40% reduction levels may not be the benchmark we need.”

While P has been the clear focus of water quality improvement efforts, there is growing evidence that nitrogen from agriculture and other sources is also playing a role in the toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie.

“We’ve known for a long time that marine systems are limited by nitrogen — N is in the shortest supply in terms of demand for algae growth. Lake Erie is a fresh water system and those are typically P limited. So if you have an algae bloom in fresh water, it is going to be because of an addition of P,” Winslow said. “That said, there are regions in the lake, like Sandusky Bay, that actually need N to trigger some of the growth. Usually when you hear about toxic algae or cyanobacteria in Lake Erie you hear about mycrocystis. In Sandusky Bay, you are dealing with a type of cynaobacteria called planktothrix. N has also come onto the radar recently because it seems like it has the potential to play a role in the toxicity of planktothrix. P is still the major driver for those blooms but now we are seeing that N may play a role in how toxic the algae blooms are. When we say nutrient management we are not just talking about P. There is some indication that we also need to be looking at N, which is a trickier element to worry about.”

The research efforts into addressing the problem of the toxic algal blooms are extensive and include the study of algae growth under the ice, algae and the lake ecosystem, and the looking for native critters that actually eat the bad algae. With these and many more facets to this extremely complex problem, there is much work to be done — both on on the farm and on the lake.


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  1. Matt, what a great story! It was great to meet you up at Stone Lab this August. Hope to read more of your great work.

  2. Steve Humrichouser

    Mr. Reese,
    Good article. Is Stone Lab looking into N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine, chemical formula C3H8NO5P, generic name Round Up, as a contributing factor to the Lake Erie algae bloom. Wikipedia has some very interesting information concerning how strongly it adsorbs to soil particles and other facts such as its half life in soil. Also Wikipedia states that the EPA is currently studying it. Is Stone Lab participating, contributing in the study?

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