Detroit River: Guilty In Lake Erie Algae Case?

How guilty is the Detroit River in polluting Lake Erie and spurring algae growth?

That’s a question the Toledo Blade explored in a recent article naming the river a “suspect” in the case of Erie’s algae problem. The paper asked: Is the river a major or minor source of the pollution that leads to algae growth?

“While scientists have no reason to upend the longstanding belief that most algae is formed by local phosphorus, the Detroit River is hard to dismiss as a contributor for the simple reason that it supplies 80 to 90 percent of western Lake Erie’s water and is home to the world’s third-largest sewage plant, the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant,” the report said.

The Detroit River has its own water pollution problems in part because of its proximity to huge industrial sites.

“The Detroit River shoreline is dominated by Motor City skyscrapers and the city’s huge sewage plant, steel mills, the Marathon oil refinery, and other heavy industry,” the report explained.

But another factor in the Detroit River’s water pollution is agriculture. The Thames River dumps farm run-off into Lake St. Clair, which then funnels water into the Detroit River.

“So what are the odds of farm runoff from the Thames River having an impact not only on Lake St. Clair, but also the Detroit River and western Lake Erie?” the report asked. “Surprisingly good, according to Tim Davis, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research scientist who specializes in harmful algal blooms.”

Davis was part of an investigation into the Lake Erie algae, comparing it to the algae on Lake St. Clair. The two sources of algae were similar.

“It’s unclear if that means farm runoff from the Thames River is creating some of the algae that flows down to western Lake Erie, or if it’s just a coincidence that algae with the same genetic material is being produced in two nearby locations,” the report said.

Experts say algae growth on Lake Erie is man-made and reversible.

“We’ve had a history in the Great Lakes of algae, which grows naturally,” Lyman Welch, water quality director of the Alliance of the Great Lakes, recently told MLive. “But when we have excessive amounts of nutrients in the water, mainly from agricultural runoff, it feeds the algae, and we’ll get a large algae bloom.”

A congressional committee took on the question of Lake Erie algae in November, spurred on by the water crisis that hit Toledo, OH, in the summer, resulting in a tap water ban.

“Subcommittee members including Republican Rep. Bob Latta called on the federal, state and local governments to work together to better understand the science, and human effects of algae contamination,” Cleveland’s Plain Dealer reported.


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