Phosphorous-induced algae blooms have researchers buzzing with concern, from Thunder Bay, ON and Toledo, OH.
Phosphorous breeds algae, and algae means bad news for drinking water, tourism, and ecosystems.
Recently, research was presented at Lakehead University about algae and phosphorous levels in Cloud Lake, a small inland lake in the Thunder Bay, ON region. Graduate student Nathan Wilson and undergraduate student Kyle Wight discussed their findings: several types of algae present, elevated phosphorous levels, and large numbers of bass fish.
Overseen by Dr. Rob Stewart and Jason Freeburn of the Department of Geography and Environmental Science, the research was done to determine why Cloud Lake’s algae has increased, and why its fish populations and species have undergone substantial changes in recent years.
Phosphorous is a major contributor to algae blooms. Data collected indicates phosphorous is present at elevated levels both in tributary streams flowing into Cloud Lake, and in sediment samples taken from the bottom of the lake. Water outflow from Cloud Lake is limited. The lake’s Cloud River outflow drains to Cloud Bay on Lake Superior, some 9 km. from the lake itself.
- Use no-phosphorous fertilizer on lawns and gardens – Be sure to check the bags when you buy them. Look for the package formula of nitrate-phosphorus-potassium, such as 22-0-15. The middle number, representing phosphorus, should be 0.
- Keep grass clippings on the lawns – When mowing the grass, avoid blowing grass clippings into the street, where they wash into storm sewers that drain to lakes and rivers.
- Keep leaves and other organic matter out of the street – Again, streets drain to storm sewers, which in turn drain to rivers and lakes.
- Sweep it – Sweep up any grass clippings or fertilizer spills on driveways, sidewalks and streets.
- Leave a wide strip of deep-rooted plants along shore-land – Instead of planting and mowing turfgrass here, plant wildflowers, ornamental grasses, shrubs or trees. These plantings absorb and filter runoff that contains nutrients and soil, as well as provide habitat for wildlife. (source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)
Ohio has seen phosphorous-related algae issues on a much, much larger scale recently. The New York Times reported on the Toledo Water Crisis of 2014. At the time, phosphorous run-off from farms, cattle feed-lots, and leaky septic fields was contributing to massive, toxic algae blooms. The largest recorded was 120 miles, stretching from Toledo to Cleveland in 2011. In 2014, Toledo’s drinking water was having serious issues:
“In Lake Erie’s case, the phosphorus feeds a poisonous algae whose toxin, called microcystin, causes diarrhea, vomiting and liver-function problems, and readily kills dogs and other small animals that drink contaminated water. Toledo was unlucky: A small bloom of toxic algae happened to form directly over the city’s water-intake pipe in Lake Erie, miles offshore.
Beyond the dangers to people and animals, the algae wreak tens of billions of dollars of damage on commercial fishing and on the recreational and vacation trades. With conservationists and utility officials […], representatives of those industries have for years called for some way to limit the phosphorus flowing into waterways.”
While phosphorous levels were reduced and the water declared safe to drink by Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins in August 2014, the issue is far from resolved. The article reports that federal bodies are limited in their ability to restrict fertilizer use, and calls for voluntary restrictions have mostly gone ignored. The Clean Water Act has come under fire in Congress, receiving pushback from fertilizer industry lobbyists and Republicans who believe it infringes on private rights and threatens farmers.
Last week, the Ohio Sea Grant released its first annual progress report on the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, carried out by the Ohio Department of Higher Education. A press release from the OSG stated that findings were based on 18 projects completed under the $4 million dollar initiative. According to the release, these projects “provided needed answers that have helped water treatment operators, regulators, farmers and legislators deal with harmful algal blooms, predict future scenarios and lay a foundation for long-term bloom mitigation and prevention.”
A second round of 31 projects is slated to begin this month. The first annual report can be found here.