11 steps you can take today to fight harmful algal blooms

lake erie august 25
This August 25th satellite image of Lake Erie clearly shows the extent of this summer’s harmful algal bloom in the western Lake Erie basin (Source: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

As we all know by now, at 2:00 on the morning of Saturday, August 2, officials in Toledo issued a do not drink advisory, depriving more than 400,000 people in the region of safe drinking water. Officials took action after tests revealed levels of microcystin, a dangerous liver toxin, reached 2.5 parts per billion (ppb), more than twice the EPA’s allowable level of 1ppb. Microcystin, which scientists place between dioxin and arsenic in terms of toxicity, is produced by cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae).

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) were commonplace during the 1960s and 1970s, leading many to declare Lake Erie dead. Concerted action by American and Canadian authorities helped to put the lid on the problem for nearly three decades; however, over the last decade, such HABs have returned in force, affecting at least 20 states during 2013 alone.

For Toledoans, the episode must have reminded many of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned his famous line,

“Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.” 

In a matter of minutes, Toledo went from the Glass City to “Empty Glass City.” The episode provided a painful reminder that an abundance of one resource, including fresh water, does not guarantee access to it.

Clearly, something must be done. A number of organizations and actors have recommended actions to this complex and multifaceted problem. The Ohio Environmental Council spelled out its proposals on the pages of The Plain Dealer, while the Canadian group Environmental Defence has published its own four-point plan.

And yet, while there is no shortage of ideas or suggestions, Ohio officials have yet to take action on this most critical of issues. The state passed SB 150, a much-hyped “first big step” to tackling the crisis in early May, nearly 3 months before this episode. But is already clear that this legislation, which establishes a state-run fertilization certification course for farmers – to begin in 2017 – is far from sufficient for the task at hand.

Fortunately, for those of us who care deeply about the health of our great lake and are not willing to sit by and let the legislative process unfold, there are actions that we can take. Here are 11 things that you can do today to begin the process of helping Lake Erie heal.

Advocacy:

  1. Write a public comment in support of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed surface water rule. This rule would expand the EPA’s ability to monitor and protect streams, creeks, and wetlands, which serve as critical tributaries for waterways like Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.
  2. Submit a  comment in support of the EPA’s proposed carbon emissions rule. Scientists project that climate change will only exacerbate the threat of harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie and other at-risk bodies of water, due to rising surface water temperatures and increased stormwater runoff.
  3. Write or call your Congressional representatives to restore full funding to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This vital program provides funding and support for a number of projects, such as wetland restoration, that help to tackle the root causes of HABs throughout the Great Lakes region.
  4. Urge your local elected officials to support NEORSD’s stormwater management program. Addressing stormwater runoff and tackling combined sewer overflow (CSO) events is vital for stemming sudden influxes of phosphorus and other chemicals into our waterways.
  5. Press state lawmakers to build upon recent efforts to control phosphorus loading in Lake Erie and other bodies of water. The state should expand its definition of fertilizer to include manure; press farmers to implement fertilizer best practices, including avoiding spreading fertilizers on frozen ground; and regulate runoff from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are quickly becoming a major source of phosphorus.
  6. Encourage NEORSD to invest a larger portion of the funding for Project Green Lake into green infrastructure projects, such as rain gardens, bioswales, and pervious pavement. Green infrastructure is one of our most important tools for reducing stormwater runoff. Such green infrastructure approaches can reduce stormwater runoff by volume by more than three-quarters and remove 30% of phosphorus pollution.

Action:

  1. Avoid using household cleaning products, particularly dishwasher and laundry detergents, that contain phosphorus (commonly referred to as “phosphate” on the ingredients list). Dishwashing accounts for roughly 10-20% of phosphorus entering municipal wastewater treatment plants, and such treatment only removes a small portion of this phosphorus before the effluent enters bodies of water. Fortunately, Ohio is one of 17 states that prohibits the sale of detergents containing more than 0.5% phosphorus. But, as a consumer, you can go even further by avoiding all household cleaning products that contain phosphorus.
  2. Reduce or eliminate your use of synthetic fertilizers and lawn care products that contain phosphorus and nitrogen. While phosphorus is the main culprit in the development of HABs, like the one that affected Toledo, recent research also suggests that excessive nitrogen may help to determine whether or not the algae produce microsystin.
  3. If local laws and ordinances permit, you may consider ceasing fertilizer use or even ditching your lawn altogether. As a recent New York Times article noted, homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals, per acre, than conventional farmers. Adopting organic lawn care practices or switching to native plants may be a better option for certain homeowners.
  4. Make a personal investment in green infrastructure at your home. Plant a rain garden, install a rain barrel, or replace your driveway/sidewalk with pervious pavers. These will limit the amount of stormwater runoff from your property and may qualify you for a credit from the NEORSD stormwater management fee, should it be implemented.
  5. If you have an idea on how to begin tackling the HAB issue, apply for funding from the Ohio EPA, which is providing 0% interest loans for fundable proposals on this topic.
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