Harmful Algal Blooms – Lake Erie

Toxic algal outbreaks in Lake Erie threaten our drinking water, public health, fish and wildlife, and economy.

In 2014, a toxic algal outbreak in western Lake Erie blanketed the water intake for the city of Toledo, leading to a spike in toxicity in the water and a “do not drink” advisory for three days for more than 400,000 people in the area.

The No. 1 cause of toxic algal outbreaks is polluted farm run-off. This occurs when excess fertilizer and manure runs off farm fields and into ditches, which flow into streams, which flow into rivers, which flow into bigger rivers, and eventually into the Great Lakes. This pollution—also called nutrient pollution—creates an overabundance of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen in the water. These extra nutrients lead to the explosive growth of algae—thick amounts of algae that blanket areas of lakes. These algae blooms can make water toxic to fish, wildlife, and people.

Nutrient pollution comes from two main sources: farms that allow manure and fertilizer to run off into local waterways after snow melt or during rain, and also sewage systems that, during some heavy rain events, spill raw or partially treated sewage into local waters.

Local and federal governments have laws to improve sewage treatment plants and home sewage treatment systems (septic tanks). Pollution from these sources, combined, account for less than 12 percent of nutrients into the Maumee River that feeds algal blooms into Lake Erie.

On the other hand, very few regulations or policies have been passed to help control runoff pollution from farms. More than 88 percent of the algal-bloom-causing polluted runoff into the Maumee and Sandusky rivers comes from agriculture.

The only way to stop toxic algal outbreaks is to get a handle on polluted farm run-off.

While many farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin are working tirelessly to become part of the solution by implementing voluntary practices that reduce fertilizer run-off from their fields, it is clear that more needs to be done to reach the nutrient reduction targets that will restore the health of Lake Erie.

We have achievable solutions – what we need is consensus from policy makers and action from all farmers to make significant progress.

The Great Lakes Business Network is committed to advancing solutions to curb farm run-off and to protect the health of Lake Erie. We believe that public officials need to act with urgency and purpose to protect our drinking water, outdoor recreation, and economy—and that they need to be held accountable if reduction targets are not met. Delaying action will only allow the problems to get worse and more costly to solve the longer we wait.