Progress slow, costly to fight toxic algae on Lake Erie

Published: Sep. 6, 2019 at 5:57 PM EDT
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(9/6/2019) - Peak season for algae blooms on the Great Lakes is coming to a close and this year's bloom in Lake Erie is massive.

It covers more than 620 square miles. That's bigger than Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Columbus, and Dayton combined.

The problem can be seen from space, as blue-green algae coats the surface of huge swathes of Lake Erie. The scale speaks to the size of the problem.

Cities, states and countries are pouring billions into addressing the problem, which temporarily poisoned Toledo's public drinking water five years ago. But, will all that investment will pay off anytime soon?

"Even if we do the right thing now, it may take a while before we see the result," said Tom Bridgeman, director of the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center.

He is leading a group of scientists and students testing the largest-ever collection of samples taken from the lake. The goal: Coping with reality as they work to find a way to predict whether any given year's blooms will be dangerous or merely gross.

Whatever develops, Toledo is better prepared than five years ago, when blue-green algae contaminated its drinking water. Now, the city has a $500 million state-of-the-art water filtration system.

"We've improved our ability to react to blooms a lot, I don't know that we've improved our ability to prevent them," said Bridgeman when asked about advancements made in tackling blue-green algae related problems over the years.

Advocates argue the solutions to the larger issue rests on shore.

"The situation is not getting better because we're not addressing the root cause," said Crystal M.C. Davis with the Great Lakes Alliance.

She traces that root cause to farms. Fertilizer is critical for growing crops, but when rain washes it into streams and ultimately the lake, it kick-starts algae blooms.

Davis applauds Ohio, Michigan and Ontario's renewed commitment to reducing agricultural runoff into the lake 40 percent by 2025, but, "we are not on schedule to meet that target," she said.

Davis suggests forcing farmers to reduce runoff and crack down on those who don't. But, floating new regulation is always a tough sell.

Ohio's Farm Bureau applauds the state's new fund for addressing runoff and said their members are ready to make changes. But, the bureau has also pushed back on the toughest proposed regulations and backed a farmer who challenged a Toledo charter change meant to protect the lake.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, said all the funding in the world won't matter without getting everyone to the table and the agricultural community on-board.

"We've got to give them the tools to be able to do it, including funding, but also let them know that the technology we're asking them to employ is actually going to work, because some of them are skeptical, understandably, because some of it's new," he said.

While President Donald Trump proposed cutting federal cash to help clean up the Great Lakes, Ohio's lawmakers are working to get Congress to invest even more.

Portman said the next step is taking solutions developed through years of research and experimenting in the real world to figure out what works best.

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