Lake Erie’s problems were solved in the ’70s

GIBRALTAR ISLAND, Ohio — For years, Sandy Bihn and her husband, Frank, spent their summers swimming in Maumee Bay, diving into clean water and racing their personal watercrafts over the waves.

But then Mr. Bihn started getting ear… infections, and algae started clogging their watercrafts. So the couple built a swimming pool rather than take a risk on the lake.

And when the announcement came this month that Toledo’s water was unsafe to drink, Mrs. Bihn, the executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper advocacy group, said she was more sad than surprised.

“We’ve kind of watched the degradation of this body of water for a long period of time,” she said.

In fact, those who have lived in Ohio long enough — Mrs. Bihn is 67 and her husband is 66 — have seen this play out before. Erie was dying in the late 1960s and early 1970s and came back only after a huge effort.

Scientists, lake residents and others are saying it’s going to take a similar effort today to save Erie. They point to Aug. 2 as a wake-up call.

That’s when liver toxins from a Maumee Bay algae bloom seeped into Toledo’s water supply, prompting officials to warn 500,000 people not to use their taps for two days.

Those algae feed on phosphorus from farm fertilizers, manure and sewage-treatment plants, which washes into streams and rivers and ultimately lakes, including Erie.

Algae blooms form in Maumee Bay during the summer and spread into Erie, sometimes stretching from Toledo to Cleveland. They can create widespread dead zones that are starved of oxygen and cannot support any life. And they can create toxins that kill pets and sicken people.

ALGAE ASIA - 1970 Algal Bloom 2

Scientists in Ohio and elsewhere who study Erie’s algae problems say the crisis is solvable. The first step is limiting the amount of phosphorus that reaches the lake. Once that happens, the lake can take care of itself, cycling water in and out within about three years, said Jeff Reutter, the director of Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory and the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, which researches Lake Erie water issues.

In the 1960s, giant algae blooms spread across the lake, fueled by industrial pollution, sewage and farm runoff.

Charles E. Herdendorf researched Lake Erie water quality with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio Geological Survey through the 1960s and directed Stone Lab from 1973 to 1988. He said that once scientists realized that phosphorus was to blame for Erie’s problems back then, they made a plan to fix it.

Herdendorf said researchers pushed for policies and regulations to persuade farmers to use no-till methods on their fields, to push soapmakers to remove phosphorus from detergents and to get money to cities and towns to improve wastewater-treatment plants to limit the amount of phosphorus that came from sewage.

In 1972, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and both countries agreed to cut back on the amount of phosphorus that made its way into Erie’s waters. In the United States, that mostly meant restricting how wastewater-treatment plants dealt with sewage. Researchers at Stone Lab and other facilities around the lake monitored phosphorus levels in Lake Erie throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, he said, to see whether their plan was working.

“After a decade of implementation, we began to see dramatic improvements in the lake,” he said.

But somewhere along the way, all those efforts went by the wayside, and increasing amounts of phosphorus crept back into the lake, helping algae blooms regain a foothold.

For several years, as Erie and as many as 19 inland lakes in Ohio have been inundated with toxic algae, scientists have said phosphorus must be cut.

As a number of efforts were introduced to educate farmers about runoff pollution and to create voluntary measures, critics said mandates were needed.

In November, a state task force that included scientists, politicians, farmers and business people concluded that Ohio must cut phosphorus runoff in the Maumee River watershed by 40 percent.

Two weeks after algae shut down Toledo’s drinking water, the directors of three state agencies announced they would offer more than $150 million in grants and interest-free loans to help cities treat water for algae toxins.

Those directors also announced $1.25 million in state money to help farmers plant cover crops and improve drainage systems to reduce the amount of fertilizer that flows from their fields into nearby streams and rivers. That money largely comes from a federal pot of money meant to help farmers deal with atrazine, an herbicide some farmers use to control weeds and grasses.

The state also announced it would allocate $2 million to help university researchers try to untangle the algae problem.

Herdendorf is one of many who say that’s not enough.

“Probably for political reasons, research money is being thrown at a bunch of dispersed groups with no overall plan or clearly defined objective,” he said. “What we need is an action plan that gets at the heart of the problem; then put enough resources in place to solve it.”

Tory Gabriel, fisheries outreach coordinator for the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, said that although Lake Erie is in trouble now, he does not believe that the lake is as unhealthy as it was in the 1960s and ’70s.

On a research boat last week, Gabriel pulled sediment up from the bottom of Lake Erie and sifted through it with his fingers.

The sediment likely contained phosphorus left by dead algae, but it also contained mayfly larvae. That’s a good sign, he said, because fish eat the larvae. Walleye fishing this year, he said, has been among the best in years.

But the lake is far from healthy. Several times over the past few weeks,Toledo’s water has come dangerously close to being undrinkable again.

“We’re destroying a great resource — it’s the 12th-largest surface-water lake in the world,” Mrs. Bihn said. “We should be fighting for this resource and getting the phosphorus down right now.”

Photo caption: Algae blooms aren’t a new problem on Lake Erie. In this photo from 1971, Dr. Jerry Hubschman uses snorkel gear to research a bloom near Put-in-Bay.

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