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Lake Erie algal bloom forecast to be mild for second straight year

This year's algal bloom predicted to be in line with 2020 thanks to relatively dry spring and summer.

TOLEDO, Ohio — For the second year in a row there is good news for the health of Lake Erie as it relates to harmful algae.

The 2021 Lake Erie harmful algal bloom forecast was given Wednesday and this year's bloom is projected to be a 3 on a 1-10 scale. The forecast is similar to last year's and means Lake Erie should see a mild bloom for consecutive years -- the first time this has happened in a decade.

Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said satellite images are clear and no blooms are visible.

"Our forecast is a 3, which puts us similar to last year," Stumpf said. "It could be as small as 2, but also as high as 4.5. This all reflects lower than average runoff."

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Stumpf said the 2020 bloom was relatively small and all but one forecasting model overestimated a year ago. Several models were recalibrated ahead of this year's forecast.

Predicting when exactly the blooms will start is still not an exact science. In some years they've started in the last couple weeks of June, but not until late July in others.

"There's a temperature factor, but it's a little more complicated than, 'It's warm and that's why it's starting,'" Stumpf said.

He said most of the lake will be in good shape most of the summer, but wind direction also plays a role. Winds from the south and west are the best, while calm winds are the worst.

Being able to forecast just how toxic the algae will be and when blooms will start are two areas Stumpf hopes to see improve with more research and tools.

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He said increased water levels in the Great Lakes in recent years have not shown to dilute the concentration of toxins.

There has been less runoff from farms in 2021 thanks to a relatively dry spring and summer. Back-to-back mild algal blooms would be a positive development, but Stumpf warns it could be cyclical.

"It's easy to say things are looking good and we can ease up," he said. "The key thing is we have been in a wet period and perhaps we're going into a dry period. There have been wet periods every 40 years and then periods of dry weather. So I should caution if we end in a dry period, we may go through smaller blooms. If we go back into wet, there's some concern there. 

"The wet periods have gotten longer, which is consistent with climate change."

Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research, gave a report on phosphorus levels in the Maumee River, which impact blooms in the lake.

Metric tons of total bioavailable phosphorus is expected between 248 and 272 this summer. That's just above the target of 240 and nowhere near the levels seen in 2015 during the water crisis.

She said flow in the river is similar to 2016 and 2020. Total particulate phosphorus loads are lower than recent years.

Johnson said smarter farming techniques and fertilizing at the proper times are key to improvement.

"That's our little bit of hope moving forward with these right practices," she said.

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