Harmful Algal Blooms - Lake Erie

Breaking: Great Lakes Business Leaders release recommendations to prevent Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie. Click the report cover to view the full report. 

Lake Erie provides drinking water for 11 million people, supports the most abundant of all of the Great Lakes fisheries, and sustains the regional tourism economy, making it a critical driver of the Great Lakes region.

  • In Ohio, the Lake Erie shoreline sustains over 30% of the state’s total tourism related dollars, valued at $15 billion annually.[1] Ohio’s Lake Erie region also supports over 100,000 Ohio tourism-related jobs and generates an additional $750 million in state and local taxes.[2]
  • In Michigan’s Lake Erie watershed, wildlife recreation creates over 55,000 jobs and adds more than $2.4 billion to the regional economy. In 2016, hunting and fishing license sales in this region provided over $1.4 million, generating the state’s highest overall expenditures on fishing and hunting for both residents and non-residents of any region statewide.[3]
  • In Ontario, more than 1.12 million recreational anglers sustain a $1.6 billion recreational fishing industry and 1,600 resource-based tourism businesses, largely based on walleye, perch and bass.[4]
  • A growing wine region, Ontario also draws nearly 5 million visitors to its scenic wine country each year[5] and the Lake Erie North Shore region boasts 13 wineries, seven spas and 220 restaurants.[6]

 

Prioritizing clean water and acting to protect freshwater resources is critical to maintaining the health of our communities and the security of the Great Lakes regional economy. For businesses that rely on clean, safe water, a healthy Lake Erie is essential.

Photo Credit: Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick

Threat
Toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie threaten our drinking water, public health, fish and wildlife, and economy. Algal blooms in the Western Basin of Lake Erie are comprised of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria which can become toxic. In the Central and Eastern Basin of Lake Erie, a type of algae called Cladophora creates “nuisance blooms” that can coat beaches and clog fish gills.  Algal blooms are fueled by nutrient pollution, which comes from non-point sources like agricultural fields and animal facilities and point sources like waste-water treatment plants, and fluctuates depending on the frequency and intensity of rainfall in the spring. As a result, harmful algal blooms vary in size each year with wet years resulting in larger blooms. Wind and water currents in the lake also affect the intensity of a bloom.

Algal blooms become harmful algal blooms when excess nutrients in the water cause cyanobacteria to grow rapidly, which can deplete aquatic oxygen levels through a process called eutrophication. Reduced oxygen in the water can create fish kills and dead zones in aquatic ecosystems. In addition, cyanobacteria produce a toxin called microcystin that is harmful to humans and wildlife upon contact exposure or ingestion.

As climate change increasingly impacts weather patterns and increases precipitation events in the Great Lakes region, harmful algal blooms pose a growing and real threat to the businesses, communities and regional economy that are dependent on Lake Erie.

Toxic algal blooms can generate significant losses when they contaminate drinking water or make the water unsafe for recreation. In 2011, nearly $71 million in economic benefits were lost because of the harmful algal bloom event in Toledo, and in 2014, a toxic algal outbreak in western Lake Erie lead to a “do not drink” advisory for three days for more than 400,000 people in the area. Research shows uncontrolled algal blooms could cost Canada $5.3 billion over 30 years. The businesses and communities that rely on Lake Erie cannot afford to take on the cost of harmful algal blooms, and inaction will only make the problem more costly.

Solution
To restore Lake Erie and prevent harmful algal blooms, the GLBN calls on the Governors of Michigan and Ohio, and the Premier of Ontario, to follow through on the priorities outlined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and specifically, their commitment for Lake Erie of a 40% nutrient reduction by 2025.

Incentive based solutions that will help achieve the regional 40% nutrient reduction goal are within reach. The GLBN believes these solutions must include monitoring metrics and accountability measures to hold sectors that contribute to harmful algal blooms accountable. We must support projects that link agricultural best management practices on the field with water quality outcomes downstream. Doing so will ensure that business owners are meeting the standards and following the regulations that protect critical resources such as the Great Lakes from nutrient pollution.

The Great Lakes Business Network has developed specific recommendations to move toward long term solutions for Lake Erie for the U.S. states of Michigan and Ohio, and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Ohio:

  • The 2011 harmful algal bloom cost Ohio $71 million in economic loss.
  • The 2014 harmful algal bloom affected drinking water for 400,000 people in the Toledo area.
  • Support the Maumee Watershed Nutrient Total Maximum Daily Load project to document local nutrient sources and establish nutrient reduction plans.
  • Support H2Ohio funding and accountability, including projects to implement agricultural best management practices.

 

Michigan:

  • Harmful algal blooms force charter boat captains further from shore, increasing costs and decreasing fishing time, and the foul smell of harmful algae blooms deters tourism on the Michigan side of Lake Erie.
  • Collaborate with Ohio in the development of the Maumee Watershed Nutrient Total Maximum Daily Load project for the Michigan portion of the Maumee River Basin to quantify local nutrient sources and establish nutrient reduction plans.
  • Support strengthening of the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assessment Program (MAEAP) with improvements that link practices on the field to water quality outcomes.
  • Ensure that the state is doing all it can to stop animal waste from polluting Michigan waters including banning all manure application on frozen, snow covered or saturated ground.

 

Ontario:

  • Develop and release the workplan for how the Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie will be implemented to meet Canada and Ontario’s commitments to a 40% reduction in phosphorus inputs to Lake Erie.
  • Invest in financial and educational programs that assist Ontario farmers with implementing agricultural best management practices that mitigate nutrient losses, with additional components that track, monitor and report progress in the public realm to ensure the funds lead to positive results.

We have achievable solutions – we now need collaboration from policy makers and action from all business owners to make significant progress.

Algal Bloom Forecasting

Toxic algal outbreaks in Lake Erie threaten our businesses, drinking water, public health, fish and wildlife, and the economy. According to the 2021 early forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued on May 11, 2021, this year’s bloom will measure a predicted 6 or less on the severity index.

The severity index is calculated based on the predicted size and duration of the algal bloom. Scientists rely on other monitoring methods to predict algal toxicity. Conditions like warm weather, heavy rain events, and mild wind speeds are often linked to more significant algal blooms.