NOAA predicts smaller Lake Erie algae bloom, but still concerned

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Fishing on Lake Erie
A group of people fishing on Lake Erie.

SANDUSKY, Ohio — The bloom of harmful algae on Lake Erie should be considerably less this year, according to experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and university researchers.

NOAA released its harmful algal bloom forecast July 7, predicting a bloom of about 5.5 on an index of zero-10 that ranks size and severity, with 10 being the most severe.

Last year’s record bloom was a 10.5, and the near-record bloom of 2011 was a 10.

This year’s bloom will likely be smaller because of drier weather conditions, and a host of conservation efforts that farmers and non-farmers have put into place.

Bloom of concern

But according to NOAA, a bloom above 5 is still a “bloom of concern.”

“That (5.5) does mean there will be a significant bloom,” said Rick Stumpf, NOAA’s forecasting leader. “This is, however, a much smaller bloom than last year, also smaller than 2014, 2013 and 2011.”

Lake Erie island
A shoreline on a Lake Erie island.

Researchers announced their prediction during a webinar from Ohio State University’s Stone Lab — located on a Lake Erie island off Put-in-Bay. They said the bloom isn’t likely to show up until late July, into August.

When it does, the bloom could actually range from as low as a 3, to as high as 7, partly because of residual phosphorus leftover from last year’s runoff, “potentially priming the system,” Stumpf said.

Normal activities

But Stumpf and the other researchers were mostly optimistic, that if precipitation remains normal and winds blow the bloom away from the shore — instead of into it — activities on the lake will proceed as usual.

“There’s plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the lake,” Stumpf said, adding “most of the lake will be fine, most of the time.”

But even in a better year — which appears on track — researchers and farmers are continuing a wide variety of conservation practices — to reduce runoff and achieve the 40 percent phosphorus reduction, that has become the goal across the region.

Jay Martin, who leads OSU’s Field to Faucet water quality program, co-led a study in March that explored a wide variety of solutions — including planting farmland in the region to grassland.

Being realistic

Martin was quick to point out that the grass option was least realistic — instead arguing that the area needs a robust combination of conservation practices — spread more widely so they will be more effective.

“To make this work in northwest Ohio, we’re going to have to maintain our agricultural productivity and maintain our economic base,” he said.

Martin said farmers across the state, and especially the Western Lake Erie Basin, have done a good job of becoming state-certified to apply nutrients, and are making serious strides with new conservation projects, thanks in part to three newly-funded demonstration farms in the basin, known as the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms.

Millions of dollars in new funding, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, universities and farmers have all been poured into the effort, to keep northwestern Ohio farming.

“We lose that, and we lose the economic viability of the region,” he said.

More reduction

Researchers are committed to reducing the phosphorus loading even more, until they reach the state and national goal of 40 percent.

“The need to reduce phosphorus and other nutrient from fertilizer, manure, and sewage remains,” said Chris Winslow, interim director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, in a released statement. “This year’s forecast not only highlights NOAA’s forecast, but it will also focus attention on current efforts to assess bloom impacts on human health, to educate water treatment plant operators, to inform and implement landscape best management practices, and to determine the best way to track our progress toward a 40 percent reduction. …”

The seasonal outlook models use nutrient load data collected by Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research and Maumee River discharge models from NOAA’s Ohio River Forecast Center. The models were developed by scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, the University of Michigan, and LimnoTech.

Weekly updates

NOAA will provide information via twice-weekly bulletins for western Lake Erie that can be received by subscription.

Details on the forecasted movement of the bloom and its location and intensity in the water can be found via NOAA’s experimental tracker, at www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/HABs_and_Hypoxia/habsTracker.html.

Field observations on the bloom and nutrient loads are collected by NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research at the University of Michigan, and by researchers with OSU, Heidelberg University, University of Toledo, the Ohio EPA, and LimnoTech.

Assessing drinking water

In September, some of these partners will deploy an Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) in Lake Erie for the first time.

The ESP “lab-in-a-can,” will autonomously collect water samples and analyze them for algal toxins to provide drinking water managers with data on harmful-algal toxicity in near real-time before the water reaches municipal water intakes. The deployment will mark the first use of the ESP technology in any freshwater system.

“The Environmental Sample Processor will enable us to more closely track changes in the toxicity of the blooms with one or two analyzed water tests each day to augment the current system of someone sampling twice a week from a boat and then taking those samples to be analyzed in a lab,” said Tim Davis, GLERL research ecologist. “Our goal is to get more rapid detection of sudden changes in toxicity to improve the timeliness of NOAA’s harmful algal bloom forecasts and better protect communities.”

Related coverage:

USDA says voluntary water quality efforts are working, announces more funding (March 29, 2016).

Lake Erie study says farmers need to do more, or plant grass (March 24, 2016).

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