Lake Erie Levels Higher, Larger Algae Blooms Predicted For Summer

An aerial view of harmful algal blooms in the western portion of Lake Erie in September 2017. [Aerial Associates Photography / Zachary Haslick / NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory]
An aerial view of harmful algal blooms in the western portion of Lake Erie in September 2017. [Aerial Associates Photography / Zachary Haslick / NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory]

Lake Erie water levels currently measure 11 inches higher than last May and areas along the North Coast are already starting to see an impact, according to Chris Winslow, director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program.

The steady spring rainfall has been a factor, Winslow says, but most of Lake Erie's water comes from the upper Great Lakes.

"So anytime they get heavy snowfall in the winters up in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Lake Superior, Lakes Michigan and Huron, whenever they get heavy snowfall and heavy rain events, that ultimately has got to come down to us," Winslow said. Colder temperatures winter create ice caps on the lake, he says, which reduces or eliminates evaporation in those months, contributing to the rising water level.

The Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory, on South Bass Island near Put-in-Bay, where Winslow is also the director, is already seeing problems from the rising waters.

"We've had to construct an entire series of elevated docks," Winslow said. "Our concrete slabs or our concrete piers on a normal day, when the wind isn't blowing heavy, the water is two inches below the tops of those docks. You can have damage to docks and infrastructure. The Miller Ferry on multiple occasions in this spring, relative to previous years, has had to shut down because they can't load passengers and vehicles on the Miller Ferry. I know there's early talk about docks that have electrical infrastructures."

Any flooding or erosion near the lake can have a great economic impact on state tourism dollars, Winslow says, and some popular early May birding weeks have suffered road closures.

"Tourism in the eight counties that touch Lake Erie, so eight of 88 counties in Ohio touch Lake Erie, they bring in $15.1 billion dollars — with a B — in tourism revenue," Winslow said. That accounts for about 36 percent of Ohio's yearly tourism revenue of $42 billion.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has been measuring phosphorous levels since the beginning of March and have found higher levels of toxins compared to last spring. NOAA and its research partners predict that western Lake Erie will experience a harmful algal bloom (HAB) of cyanobacteria this summer that is larger than the mild bloom in 2018, the agency said in a press release. Scientists expect this year’s bloom to measure between 5 and 8.5 on the severity index. The severity index is based on a bloom’s biomass — the amount of its harmful algae — over a sustained period. The largest blooms, in 2011 and 2015, were 10 and 10.5, respectively. Last year’s bloom had a severity of 3.6 considered a mild bloom. 

However, a repeat of a crisis like Toledo's algae-contaminated drinking water in 2014  is unlikely and preventable, Winslow says.

"Since 2015, the EPA and all of our water treatment plant operators have more tools and technologies to remove the toxins from the water than they ever have before," Winslow said. "They have the ability to detect it sooner. [The Toledo crisis] mobilized money, it has mobilized communication across state agencies, it's mobilized communication between the agencies and the academics. I would say Ohio is at the forefront of finding solutions for this problem."

Winslow is confident another water crisis would be due to user error and not lack of preparation or knowledge and suggests resources like Beach Guard through Ohio.gov to monitor toxin levels this summer. 

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