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Buffalo News special report, Fourth of five parts on the health of Lake Erie

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Massive algal blooms covered thousands of square miles on the other end of Lake Erie in 2011. Some warn the next ones could get worse – and closer – unless changes are made.

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OREGON, Ohio – They could see it from outer space. When a toxic mat of algae – bright green in color, covering 2,000 square miles – blanketed Lake Erie two summers ago, it stretched from Detroit to Cleveland.

It wasn’t just ugly to look at.

It was dangerous.

In the middle of the algae mass was a “dead zone” stretching some 100 miles, which killed everything below where it floated as the decaying algae sucked oxygen from the water.

Toxins filled the water and those of nearby lakes inland, as well.

Who bore the brunt of this sickness-causing phenomenon?

No humans seem to have died, though some got sick. But birds, aquatic life and other animals – even dogs – died after coming into contact with the poison.

The algal bloom receded at the end of that summer, and last year’s wasn’t as bad. But experts fear that a new toxic algae mass could fill the western end of Lake Erie again this summer, with ripple effects spreading all the way to Buffalo.

That is troubling for everyone – including, it seems, to some of those who may be part of why the toxic episode happens in the first place.

Bill Myers is one of them.

Myers’ day-to-day activities on his farm in northwestern Ohio affect the health of Lake Erie – and, by extension, all of those who live in Western New York. Myers knows the way he farms, including his use of phosphorus fertilizer, fuels the presence of dangerous algae in the lake.

Myers acknowledges that.

But, he also knows the problem is bigger than just one man – or an industry.

“Every time you interact with the environment,” Myers said, “there are going to be trade-offs.”

Not all algae in the lake is bad.

Everyone who has ever walked the shores of Lake Erie remembers seeing sludge – green or brown, slimy or dense – along the edge of the waves.

Usually that is no big deal. Algae can even be a good thing when it provides nutrition for the aquatic life that relies on its presence.

But this toxic algae “bloom” – a name scientists give a proliferation of algae in an area – is different.

Hazards for humans, pets

Created by bacteria, the algal bloom can have seriously adverse effects.

There are thousands of forms of the cynobacteria, of which about 30 are toxic. The predominant form, called “microcystis,” is cloaked in a vividly green swampy substance that now appears annually in the lake on top of the water.

Some years for the bacteria are worse than others. In 2011, the blanket of bright green toxic goop spread more than 100 miles east across the lake, reaching as far as Cleveland.

Besides sucking the oxygen out of the water and creating “dead zones” where fish and other aquatic life struggle to survive, microcystis – and lyngbya, another toxic form of cyanobacteria present in blooms – can be hazardous to humans and their pets.

Microcystis primarily attacks the liver, often resulting in severe damage, but other cynobacteria can cause skin damage, neurological problems and other harmful effects.

People in the Great Lakes region have been sickened, according to published reports, but no deaths linked to the toxins appear to have occurred. Several dogs died after the animals drank toxic water, according to published media reports.

People elsewhere in the world have died after ingesting the toxin, according to the World Health Organization.

However, even to the trained eye, it is impossible to tell if algae in the lake water is the dangerous kind.

Some of the lake’s bright green algae – often 6 inches deep in places – may contain the toxin, while other patches may not.

“If you see green stuff, you shouldn’t be swimming,” said Rachel Lohner, the education program manager at the Lake Erie Center, a research and education center at the University of Toledo dedicated to solving environmental problems in the Great Lakes.

She told of a man who went to rescue his dog from the putrid green sludge and came out of the water with nerve damage in his arm.

Stories like this, and others, are why there are now beachfront signs up and down Ohio’s shoreline warning of the danger.

“Avoid swallowing lake water,” some of the signs read.

Others say this: “Have fun on the water, but know that blue-green algae are in many Ohio lakes. Their toxins may be too.”

No such signs seem to dot the local shores on the eastern end of the lake near Buffalo.

But that does not mean the toxins do not matter, two states away.

“You get your water from here,” pointed out Sandy Bihn, executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper, an advocacy group in Toledo, Ohio. “The water moves from west to east.”

In other words: We all swim in, and drink from, the same lake.

“It’s not going to stay in the western end,” said Gregory L. Boyer, professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. “It’s going to spread throughout the lake.”

Agriculture connection

Algae comes from simple ingredients.

Sunlight, warmth, stagnancy and phosphorus – a main ingredient in fertilizer, both commercial-grade and manure – accelerate the growth of toxic algae.

The algae-forming brew began simmering in the western end of Lake Erie. Now, it is in the central portion.

Many scientists and environmental activists said dissolved phosphorus is getting into the western end of Lake Erie from the Maumee River, a 137-mile waterway that begins in Fort Wayne, Ind., and winds its way through western Ohio before emptying into Maumee Bay at Toledo on Lake Erie’s westernmost edge.

The area is home to many farms. Some – like Bill Myers’ corn, soybean, wheat and alfalfa operation – have been run by families for generations.

Myers stores his commercial fertilizer – a standard agricultural product – in a 3,000-gallon tank across Cedar Point Road from the beaches of Maumee Bay State Park.

More than a decade before laws required dikes to catch any escaping fertilizer, the Myers farm – a flat, picturesque spread of more than 2,000 acres, with red-painted barns and a simple farmhouse – had them.

“We’ve always been that way because of our proximity,” Myers said. “We’re so close, that you spill something here – we don’t even have time to call the EPA before it gets to the lake.”

Fed by farmland runoff, a lot of problems stem from that one funnel point, the Maumee region,

“The excess phosphorus causes an explosion of algae growth,” said Melinda Koslow, regional program manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Part of the reason is the scale.

The Maumee is the main tributary that receives stormwater runoff from large Ohio and Indiana farms. With a watershed covering more than 4 million acres from a landscape that is 80 percent farmland, it generates the majority of dissolved phosphorus flowing to the lake, according to statistics from the National Wildlife Federation.

Two years ago, a wet summer in the Maumee River region resulted in the toxic pea-green plume in Lake Erie of more than 2,000 square miles – so big and green it was easily photographed from space by NASA.

A drier 2012 helped tamp down the problem last year.

It remains to be seen what this summer will hold.

“The problem with that algae is it’s persistent,” said Pamela Struffolino, a research technician at the University at Toledo’s Lake Erie Center.

Farms aren’t sole culprit

As for Myers, whose family has been working the land since 1890 and will continue into a fifth generation with his 21-year-old son John, he plans to continue using responsible agricultural practices.

“We have to find a way,” said the Ohio farmer, “we can ecologically exist together.”

More than just farms share the blame for the problem.

Other causes, such as sewage, also lie behind the toxic mixture in the lake. Potentially, even climate change may play a role.

Bihn pointed to Michigan environmental reports that suggest that Detroit’s aged wastewater system may, with the Maumee River, contribute to the amount of phosphorus discharged into Lake Erie.

To a lesser extent, but not to be discounted, she said, are stormwater discharges and runoff from the entire watershed.

That is partly why Bihn and others in northwestern Ohio want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update the assessment on “Lake Erie Water Quality,” which identified pollutants and named strategies to clean up the lake.

Bihn likened it to blood tests used to diagnose sick humans.

“That’s the gauge used most often for us,” Bihn said. “If we’re not doing ‘blood work’ on the lake to know what those numbers are, we’re hoping we’re doing all the right things in all the right places, but we don’t really know.”

Stir climate change into the mix – with warmer temperatures and increased annual precipitation – and scientists, environmental activists and lake lovers fear the anxiety-provoking 2011 algal bloom that engulfed Lake Erie from Detroit to Cleveland may be but a sign of things to come.

“There’s nothing that will affect the Great Lakes more in this next century than climate change,” environmentalist Bill McKibben predicted during a recent visit to the University at Buffalo.

McKibben, founder of the climate change group 350.org, quotes French oceanographer Jean-Pierre Gattuso’s forecast that the world’s oceans, if climate change is not arrested, will become “hot, sour and breathless” by the end of the century. The fate of the Great Lakes could be even more dire, he said.

“I imagine in smaller bodies of water,” McKibben said, “that happens more quickly.”

Solutions and the future

Dealing with the factors that contribute to toxic algae may not be a matter of finding a silver bullet.

It may be a case of making many smaller changes.

Take the phosphorus issue.

Scientists and agricultural experts on the lake’s western end are testing methods to mitigate the phosphorous finding its way into the lake. Experts at the Lake Erie Center are developing sediment ponds as a way to grab suspended materials in agricultural and stormwater runoff before it gets to Lake Erie.

The ponds are designed to provide more time for sediment to filter out of the water before runoff drains into the lake waters.

In addition, the center also now conducts daily water testing to determine the safety of the water.

That means state health officials in Ohio can decide whether beaches should be closed to the public with more accuracy.

Farmers in the region, too, are encouraged not to spread manure on frozen fields in the winter, to cut down on runoff during thaws. Others suggest that farmers establish buffers between the edge of their farmland and any creeks or streams.

And they are urged to conserve fertilizer.

Farmers said they already do that. Fertilizer is expensive, and so they try to be savvy about how much to use.

Many farms, including Myers’ farm, regularly sample and test soil with the latest technology, to get the best bang for their buck.

Allen Gahler, manager of the Lucas County Farm Bureau, favors a comprehensive plan for decreasing phosphorus contamination in Lake Erie, one that includes farms but also other suspected sources, such as sewage and stormwater.

“We’re not looking at other sources,” Gahler said. “We’re not doing monitoring. We’re not assigning it to any other sources.”

“It’s part of the puzzle,” Bihn said of agriculture’s role, “but it’s not 100 percent.”

And with fertilizer needed to grow crops, there’s no way around that.

Lucas County covers much of the Maumee River’s last 30 miles before Maumee Bay, including Myers’ farm.

“It’s absolutely vital we have an abundant food supply. It’s got to be safe. It’s got to be affordable,” said Myers, surrounded by the fields where he sowed soybeans on a warm spring afternoon. “You can’t have it cost $20 for a pound of beans because there’s no environmental footprint.”

“We’ve got to be able to come up with something that – 95 percent of the time – everybody’s going to be happy.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com