Algae in Lake Erie Impacts Ohio’s Families
Written by Laura Michelle Burns
Ohio’s summer is already in full swing. Growing up, June was still a month with temperatures in the 60s and 70s, but my children are experiencing temperatures far above the average. For Ohioans, the increase in temperature and potential for heavy summer rains also means a rise in algae in our lakes and rivers.
The most memorable algal blooms damaged the drinking water in Lake Erie, in 2014. These algal blooms are made up of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. Healthy lakes need algae. They’re at the bottom of the food chain and become food for many fish. But, when a lake (or river) is exposed to high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, the algal growth changes from normal to extreme blooms. These extreme blooms are capable of producing scum several inches thick on the surface of the water, which is unhealthy.
These unhealthy blooms are capable of producing neurotoxins that pose a risk to human and animal health, impair coastlines and negatively impact communities and business in the area. Most commonly people in contact with the algae have skin reactions, but nausea, vomiting, throat irritation, allergic reactions, or difficulty breathing from inhaling the algae during water sporting can also be symptoms. The toxins produced by blue-green algae may also affect the liver and nervous system if water is ingested in sufficient quantities. If you want your summer to take a scary turn, contact with an algal bloom is the answer.
In the last few years, Lake Erie has added warnings to their coastline warning visitors to keep not only themselves out of the water, but their pets. Since 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been keeping track of these blooms as they have spread across Lake Erie and as far south as the Ohio River.
Additionally, The Cyanobacteria Assessment Network, collaboration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey and NASA, began developing an early warning system to detect toxic algae blooms in inland lakes across the U.S in 2015. Although the news tends to focus on Lake Erie and those dramatic impacts, inland Ohio lakes like Grand Lake Saint Mary are also severely impacted. Going beyond health, communities see a negative impact in tourist income and property values.
Knowledge. With the monitoring in place, we can learn where the algae is coming from and how it spreads. Phosphorus and nitrogen are introduced to the lake’s ecosystem via runoff from our fields. When these chemicals mix with the lake water, it encourages the growth of algae. When there is an overgrowth of algae, that’s how a bloom is created.
These two chemicals are present in both chemical fertilizers and manure, and when the heavy spring and summer rains come, they wash right out of the fields and into our lake.
Pollution from power plants and factories produce high levels of phosphorus in the lake. The amount of chemicals emitted into our atmosphere as a result of the fracking industry and coal-fired power plants serve to increase the temperature of the earth. Increased pollutants, like methane, trap heat around the earth and the resulting increased moisture causes a rise in extreme weather events. This increase in temperature and rainfall creates an environment within the lake that is perfect for algal growth.
In order to accurately predict how this summer’s algae readings will fare, we need the data collected via field and satellite. This data is available to the public and serves to empower our citizens to take charge of their summer health.
Dozens of other water sources in Ohio are impacted by algae throughout the summer. Skin irritations, vomiting and difficulty breathing are not souvenirs we want to come back from vacation with!
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