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Commission: Algal Blooms From Farm Runoff Are Top Lake Erie Concern

Much of the nutrient pollution entering Lake Erie comes from farm fields in Northwest Ohio. [Ohio Environmental Protection Agency]
A map shows sources of nutrient pollution in Ohio.

Reducing harmful algal blooms remains the top priority for protecting and restoring Lake Erie, according to a draft plan released by the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.

The Ohio Lake Erie Commission’s 2020 plan lists its first priority area as reducing nutrient pollution, 85 percent of which comes from farm fertilizer and manure runoff. Nutrients in the runoff lead to blooms of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, which then release toxins into the water.

"What we are trying to do is shrink the size of the algal blooms and ensure that they're not toxic," Joy Mullinex, the commission's executive director, said. "And obviously that's what's making Lake Erie unsafe for people to come into contact with it or drink it."

Harmful algal blooms have been a particular area of concern for the state since 2014, when a large bloom contaminated Toledo's drinking water supply. The 2019 bloom on Lake Erie measured about 620 square miles, smaller than others in recent years.

The plan, last updated in 2018, doesn't come with any funding attached, but Mullinex said it can help the state’s agencies set strategies and track progress.

Harmful algal blooms threaten drinking water and can kill fish. [Ohio Sea Grant]

"The Ohio General Assembly has provided the agencies with the funds to implement [the plan]," she said. "We work with the agencies to pull together their work and promote it in this high level document."

The state's H2Ohio Plan includes several strategies for reducing contamination from farm fields, including creating new wetlands to filter runoff and planting "cover crops" during fallow periods, to hold nutrients in the soil.

Other Concerns and Progress

Controlling invasive species — including Asian carp and two types of plants, hydrilla and phragmites — is another priority. Invasive species often outcompete native species, reducing natural habitat for fish and compromising wetlands' ability to filter water flowing into the lake.

Mullinex said recent shoreline erosion caused by record-high lake levels is something the commission is "watching," but the problem is not specifically addressed in the report.

"The lake levels are either going to be high or low or average based on Mother Nature. And so, you know, we the state can't do anything to address that," Mullinex said.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Office of Coastal Management has attributed the lake's record-high levels in part to climate change.

The plan also cites several areas of progress since 2018, including the removal of some " areas of concern," or points in the Lake Erie watershed where contaminants enter the water.

A related draft plan, the Ohio Domestic Action Plan 2020, also names reducing nutrient pollution as its primary goal.

A public comment period for both plans remains open until Feb. 28.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.