Ohio calls for help as Lake Erie continues to suffer from toxic algae

The environmental conditions of the Great Lakes have been a great concern over the past decades, but 2015 proved to be a year rife with ecological challenges, especially in the case of Lake Erie.

Throughout the Rust Belt, almost a century of environmental pollution, heavy lake-effect precipitation and recent climate change shifts have resulted in an incubator-like setting for toxic algae blooms. Unfortunately, the conditions are only getting worse, as the region has been dealing with more rain, heat and humidity this summer, and as a result, the state of Ohio is reaching out for help to reverse the trend of toxic algae bloom growth.

"An incubator-like setting is taking place in Lake Erie."

Lake Erie's toxic algae problem
Over the past several years, it became apparent that pollution was becoming a serious problem, both for local drinking water as well as the native species that call the lake home. According to The Guardian, phosphorus pollutants from farm fields, wastewater plants and septic tanks in several regions, including Michigan, Indiana and southern Ontario as well as Ohio, have been collecting in Lake Erie. Because the Great Lakes are some of the few freshwater bodies in North America, many conservationists and Ohio locals have come to the consensus that unilateral action needs to be taken.

The toxic algae blooms have grown so large that parts of the lake have been turning green and appear to be growing rapidly. Ecological forecasting has been ongoing in the region since this phenomenon began, but it's clear that more needs to be done to clean up Lake Erie, and state officials agree.

"We can't do it alone, and they can't do it alone," Craig Butler, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, explained to The Guardian. "I think everybody really understands that we need collaboration."

What lies ahead
The aforementioned U.S. states have already showed signs that they are willing to prevent these issues. One of these efforts is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Water Quality program, which aims to predict ecosystem processes of the region with abiotic and hydrodynamic bioassessment.

The Great Lakes get a lot of press when it comes to harmful algal blooms, but many regions across the U.S. from coast to coast are suffering from these colonies of bacteria and toxins, including the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the Lower St. John's River in Florida, Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans and Monterey Bay in California, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Several environmental conditions make algal blooms more common. Although basic algae growth is a normal part of aquatic life, too many contaminants can lead to blooms, which present major problems for fish, local wildlife and drinking water. Blooms can cause death in fish due to liver damage, and algae identification services have connected the blooms to deaths in ducks, gulls, hawks, great blue herons, pets and livestock.

The National Geographic Society points out that these toxins can also pose human health threats, such as neurological issues, paralysis and seizures. With so many potential health issues for humans, fish, wildlife and invertebrate species throughout Lake Erie, there is a definitive need for continuous bioassessment surveys to see whether the region is operating with clean and safe water.

Harmful algae blooms pose significant health risks to fish, wildlife and humans.Harmful algae blooms pose significant health risks to fish, wildlife and humans.

Northeast Ohio: A history of water pollution
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Northeast Ohio has experienced harmful changes to the local aquatic ecology. In 1969, one of the worst environmental calamities in our nation's history happened here. Because of Cleveland's decades of industrial waste flowing into the Cuyahoga River, the waterway caught on fire due to sparks from a passing train car. The accumulated oil slicks in the river and other debris resulted in the waterway being engulfed in flames that reached five stories high, according to Ohio History Central. People across the nation were shocked to realize water pollution had reached such a degree in the area that a major waterway actually caught on fire.

The event was so catastrophic that it moved Congress to eventually establish the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s, and it also bolstered support for the groundbreaking Clean Water Act, which passed in 1972. Clearly, this region has had a long history of polluted water bodies and needs assistance from ongoing ecological consulting services, as these issues are continuing. 

However, there are positive signs that Cleveland has at least learned from its murky past, as the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has allotted $3.5 billion to cleaning up the Cuyahoga and surrounding sewer systems. There are also plans to further endow $5 billion to keep up the health of water systems in the city.

Scientists believe climate change is contributing to toxic algal bloom growth as well. Scientists believe climate change is contributing to toxic algal bloom growth as well.

Climate change and algal blooms
Timothy Davis, a research ecologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory whose specialty is in harmful algal blooms, explained to the National Geographic Society that climate change is also driving the toxic growth. 

Lake Erie is the most shallow of the Great Lakes, so the average water temperature is usually higher than normal, creating an incubator-like environment for algae growth that is already considered out of control. Scientists also believe that climate change is resulting in the algae strains becoming more toxic, further showing the need for ecological consulting services in the region, and soon.