Water Watchdogs

Like a giant toy claw, the trap snaps shut when it hits the bottom of Lake Erie, capturing whatever is sitting on the bottom. Matt Thomas, lab manager at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, slowly pulls up the clamp trap and pulls out a mass of mussels. But this isn’t a treasure­—it’s a nuisance. They are zebra mussels, an invasive species that has been threatening the lake for years, along with other invasive species such as the round gobi fish, white perch and sea lampreys.

Protecting the lake from invasive species is just one of the important roles of Stone Lab, the nation’s oldest freshwater biological field station and Ohio State’s teaching and research center for Lake Erie. Stone Lab serves as a base for more than 65 researchers who work year-round to solve the most pressing problems facing the Great Lakes. That means finding ways to protect a source of drinking water for 11 million residents and recreation for tens of thousands of tourists.

One of the biggest threats are the harmful algal blooms (HABs), which can cause illness in humans and animals and threaten the lake’s $11 billion tourism industry. The slimy blue-green algae can become thick enough to slow down boats, scaring away anglers, boaters and tourists. On this hot mid-August day, the water near Perry’s Monument in Put-in-Bay is greenish-blue; two days earlier it was clear blue.

“We’re in a light to moderate bloom right now,” said Jeff Reutter, director of Stone Lab. Reutter was talking to a group of Farm Bureau members who were visiting the laboratory on Gibraltar Island to learn more about the lake’s problems and how to help slow down HABs, which can pollute beaches, reduce oxygen levels for fish and generate toxic chemicals. Scientists say harmful algal blooms are mostly caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus, which is found in animal manure and many commercial fertilizers. Farm field runoff, sewer overflows, leaking septic systems and wastewater plant discharges enter various waterways, eventually ending up in Lake Erie.

HABs have been documented since 2002 with the largest in 2011 when heavy and frequent rains kept pushing nutrients into the lake, which is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes. Fortunately a drought the next year helped keep the blooms down. This year the bloom is expected to be about one-fifth the size of 2011’s record bloom.

That forecast comes from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. NOAA works with Stone Lab, the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University and the University of Toledo to determine the nutrient levels in Lake Erie and its tributaries to make its algal bloom prediction.

Reutter said the Maumee River watershed is the largest Great Lakes watershed and drains 4.5 million acres of agricultural land in parts of northwestern Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. While only 3 percent of its water flows into Lake Erie (80 percent is from the upper lakes), the watershed accounts for 40 percent of the lake’s nutrients.

“We need to reduce the amount of phosphorus by 40 percent,” said Reutter, who also is head of Ohio Sea Grant, a NOAA-funded program. “The solution will allow agricultural production to remain unchanged. It will require practices to change like how the phosphorus is applied and when. Farm Bureau has been doing a great job encouraging farmers to follow the 4Rs (using the right fertilizer source at the right rate, at the right time and at the right place).”

Reutter is confident Lake Erie’s water quality will improve, pointing out that the lake went through a similar problem in the late 60’s and early 70’s. At that time, two-thirds of the phosphorus and other nutrients came from factories and city plants and the rest from agriculture; today it’s the complete opposite. Even though agriculture was only a small part of the problem decades ago, farmers switched to no-till and other conservation practices, and Reutter believes the same will happen today.

“I’m optimistic that things will improve but we can’t just rely on agriculture to do all of this. Everybody, including consumers and cities, needs to think about how to reduce the nutrient load.”

Help limit the addition of nutrients by:
•    Using lawn and plant fertilizers sparingly
•    Using a phosphorus-free fertilizer
•    Regularly checking and maintaining your septic system
•    Preventing surface runoff from agricultural and livestock areas
•    Stopping large concentrations of Canada geese from setting up residence
•    Maintaining native plants along shorelines and areas throughout the watershed because they help filter nutrients
•    Installing a bottom aeration system in small lakes and ponds that have annual harmful algal blooms
•    Treating established harmful algal blooms with no more than the recommended dose of algaecides.

A PRODUCTIVE LAKE: Lake Erie only has 2 percent of the Great Lakes’ water but 50 percent of the fish.
~ Source: Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory

Keeping Ohio Sea Grant funding intact
This year, Ohio Farm Bureau advocated strongly to restore state funding for both Ohio Sea Grant and Heidelberg University’s Water Quality Lab. Funding for both programs was initially cut from the proposed state budget. Without the $285,000 in state money, Ohio Sea Grant would have lost matching funds. For every $1 in state funding, it gets $2 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.