Lake Erie Algae: How do we know what we know?

(Source: WTOL)
(Source: WTOL)

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - Detroit River. Sandusky River. Maumee River.

Three rivers that control the majority of runoff that comes into Lake Erie. Of those, nearly all of Lake Erie's water comes from the Detroit River alone.

But do not look to the north to find the main source of our algae problems.

"The actual density, concentration that is in the Detroit River is orders of magnitude lower than what we see in the Maumee," said Laura Johnson from the National Center for Water Quality Research. "The Maumee is like a nutrient broth that is coming into the western basin."

For the past few years, Dr. Laura Johnson has run the labs at the National Center for Water Quality Research.

From the hundreds-of-thousands of samples run through at the center, one thing is clear: The Maumee River is the main source of runoff.

The Maumee was flagged as the highest priority. Phosphorous concentrations are thirty-times greater on the Maumee compared to the Detroit River.

"Having a contributor as big as the Maumee River is really unheard of," Dr. Johnson added.

But where does this runoff come from with such a large watershed?

  • 10 percent comes from sewage treatment plants and combined sewer overflows. Legislation starting last century have reduced this runoff by over 75 percent.
  • 5-percent from septic tanks and lawn care
  • 85 percent from rural and agriculture

With over 14,000 farms in the Western Lake Erie basin, even a small amount off each field adds up.

On average, each acre of farmland in Ohio only loses one pound of phosphorous. But that multiplied that by millions of acres draining into a shallow warm lake in the summer leaves a serious problem..

"For years, phosphorous was economically affordable and farmers built up levels, put on more than they probably needed to get their soil tests up," Steven Davis of the USDA said. "Well now they are there and we don't need to do that anymore."

From river samples, down to individual farm fields, more precise runoff samples have become critical for people like Steve Davis with the USDA to monitor where phosphorous is coming from.

"We're not losing a lot, but we have such a large land area when it all comes to one spot," Davis said. "I equate it to several million birds flying down to Toledo and depositing in one place."

With such a massive problem, no one solution is going to be the fix. Luckily, there are many in northwest Ohio looking to find a cure.

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