Lake Erie Algae: What’s the plan?

(Source: WTOL)
(Source: WTOL)

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - Forty percent is a simple number with complicated answered when it comes to Lake Erie algae.

Canada, Michigan and Ohio committed to reducing their phosphorous runoff by 40 percent by the year 2025. And the largest share of the work in Northwest Ohio must come from farm fields.

"It comes through this flume. We have a sampling station there and it is run by a solar panel. It collects water any time there is runoff 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,"  explained Steve Davis, a soil expert with the USDA.

The task to reduce runoff on the over 4 million acres of cropland that drains into Western Lake Erie falls partially on the shoulders of Steve Davis with the USDA. Monitors on the edge of these fields have tracked nutrient loss in Wood County for several years, one of over 20 sites in the area.

Best practices like sub-surface fertilizer placement, buffer strips and cover crops are tested there. The USDA shares date with farmers across the region. 

Steve Davis says there is an expense to those cover crops.

"There is an expense: $40, $50, $60 an acre depending upon what seed and how you do it," Davis said.

With an average farm field size of 200 acres, a simple cover crop can cost a farmer $10,000.

The government offers about $200 million in incentives each year to local farmers to help with the costs.

Chris Winslow of Ohio Sea Grant says that just means more money should go toward rural practices,

"Eighty-five percent is likely from agricultural sources. So what that just means is that we have to rally 85 percent of the funds into that direction," Winslow said. "So really when you identify the sources it's not for a blame game or any punitive damage. It's really to rally where the resources go to address that."

Sprawling suburbia and cities still have their work to do too. Upon completion in 2020, the Toledo Waterways Initiative will have spent over $500 million to reduce sewer overflows in the Maumee River by 80 percent.

"If we're asking for farmers to step up and do some best management practices, many of them are, then we have to be asking our residents in suburban neighborhoods to do what they can too," Winslow said. "This is an all hands-on deck kind of thing."

Technology is also rapidly changing in Lake Erie itself. With the bloom season over, the buoy at Toledo's Intake has been taken out of the water.

During the warm season these sensors give scientists a new dynamic view of the bloom in real time: Protecting our drinking water, while also studying the algae growth.

"Eyes on the water. What is the lake doing? Today it's calm, some days it's not calm," Ed Verhamme, a Great Lakes engineer with Limnotech, said. "The bloom is here, it's not here. Even without the bloom being here this buoy is providing a lot of data, information."

Is all this enough? Before the 40 percent reduction can be reached in 2025, a mid-term goal of 20-percent was established for two years from now.

"Are we going to hit 20 percent by 2020? I don't know. I'm not optimistic about that," Winslow said. "But I definitely think we are moving in the right direction. If we don't hit that 20-percent reduction we can stop and take stock of what did happen and what did work. Then maybe ramp initiatives there."

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