It official: The algae bloom that covered Lake Erie this past summer was the biggest and baddest ever recorded.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that finding today, saying this past summer’s toxic-algae bloom was more severe even than the 2011 bloom, which stretched along the shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland.
This past summer’s bloom was bigger, though. As it sprawled toward Cleveland, it migrated toward the center of Erie rather than sticking to the coast.
It also was more dense.
Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer and toxic-algae expert with NOAA, said a wet, rainy June and July caused massive amounts of algae-forming runoff to make its way to the lake.
The kind of toxic algae that forms each summer on Lake Erie and other lakes around Ohio feeds on phosphorus, a key element of livestock manure and sewage. Much of the phosphorus that gets into the lake comes from the Maumee River, which flows through eastern Indiana and western Ohio, depositing its waters into the western part of Lake Erie near Toledo.
Manure and sewage wash from soil and into the rivers and streams that feed the Maumee. More rains mean more runoff.
Scientists and policymakers can’t control the weather.
“But there is one part we can control, and that’s how much phosphorus we let into the lake,” Stumpf said.
Scientists for years have recommended cutting the amount of phosphorus that gets into the lake to curb the annual algae problem; earlier this year, Ohio signed a compact with Michigan and Ontario, pledging to reduce the amount of phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025.
NOAA’s announcement on Tuesday renewed calls that Ohio pursue a federal impairment designation for the lake.
The designation is credited with helping the Chesapeake Bay fight its own algae problems by reducing the amount of algae-feeding nutrients that flow into the bay. The designation would almost certainly mean tougher regulations over how large livestock farms deal with manure and over how much manure crop farmers put down on their fields as fertilizer.
The designation also could free additional federal money to help Lake Erie combat algae.
Gov. John Kasich has so far refused to ask for the designation.
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler said the designation could slow down existing efforts to reduce algae in Erie.
The Ohio EPA is preparing a voluntary plan to reduce the amount of phosphorus coming from Ohio into Lake Erie, to meet the 2025 target, he said.
Diverting EPA staff members from those plans to work on requirements under an impairment designation “would be splitting our resources at best,” Butler said.
Butler said he has not seen concrete examples of the amount of money the designation would bring to Lake Erie’s algae fight.
The designation brought about $2.2 billion to the Chesapeake.
Adam Rissien, director of agricultural and water policy for the Ohio Environmental Council, which advocates on behalf of the environment, said an impairment designation would be one piece of a solution for Lake Erie’s annual algae problem.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Rissien said. “What we really need to see are some stronger measures in place that ensure agricultural pollution is really being reduced.”