EPA awards grants to address Lake Erie’s toxic blooms

October 24, 2014

The Environmental Protection Agency has awarded three states, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, a shared $12 million in federal grants to address the toxic algae blooms found in Lake Erie. The funds will be used to assist efforts in reducing phosphorus runoffs near the lake, which are thought to be a major contribution to the problem. The EPA will also be providing technical assistance and education outreach to help protect the lake's tributaries. 

Multiple factors are thought to be contributing to the increase in volume and frequency of the algae blooms in the Great Lake, which can kill animals and cause severe liver damage in humans. In early August, nearly half a million Toledo residents were issued a "Do Not Drink" order when a harmful chemical known as micrcystin, which is produced by the blooms, was found in a water treatment plant. 

Farmers near the western shore of the lake have been thought to be contributing to the growth of toxic blooms through their use of fertilizers, herbicide, pesticides and other products that contain high levels of phosphorous.

The algae feeds on phosphorous, which is delivered by rain and run off to nearby tributaries, where it eventually finds it way into the lake. Phosphorus levels in the lake have risen steadily since the mid-1990s, NBC News reports. 

Another suspected factor feeding the blooms are invasive zebra and quagga mussels found in Lake Erie. While blooms were previously found on the lake, they were not of the toxic Microcystis variety that is now dominant. This is because these invasive mussels feed on the other algae varieties, but filter out Microcystis, allowing the population to grow unchecked. 

Climate change is also another factor thought to be contributing to the increase in toxic blooms. The increased frequency and intensity of storms in recent years have also been followed by longer-than-average calm periods.

These storms are believed to deliver more phosphorous into the lake via runoff caused by heavy rain and wind, while the extended calm period gives the algae plenty of time to feed and grow, according to Gary Fahnenstiel, a research scientist with the University of Michigan's Water Center in Ann Arbor and an expert on harmful algal blooms. 

"You have to have this mix of things to happen," Fahnenstiel explained to NBC. "It is kind of like a mini version of the perfect storm to have these big nasty blooms."

Addressing these factors requires a concentrated effort on several fronts. Farmers have pledged to reduce phosphorous usage, and switched to conservation tillage strategies to limit soil erosion. The EPA's education initiatives involving farmers and local residents on the best practices to combat future growth will also play a key role in making sure the blooms do not continue their expansion. 

Funds will also go to expand water-quality monitoring efforts in key watersheds that have been identified as leading sources of phosphorous. Environmental consultants can help identify the most cost-effective means of addressing Lake Erie blooms.