Lake Erie water quality tour

Invasive species. Intense thunderstorms. Massive blue-green blobs.

While this may sound like the description of a sci-fi movie, it’s actually one of the many threats to Lake Erie, one of Ohio’s greatest resources. Lake Erie provides drinking water for 11 million people and brings in $11.5 billion from visitors, almost one-third of the state’s total tourism dollars.

I recently joined a group of more than 30 Farm Bureau members across the state for a water quality tour of Lake Erie hosted by Erie County Farm Bureau. Participants included the Kelleys island mayor, Vermilion residents, a hobby farmer from Worthington and grain farmers from north central Ohio. Their livelihoods were diverse but they all shared an interest in taking care of Lake Erie’s water.

Finding ways to preserve the quality and quantity of all Ohio waterways has long been on Ohio Farm Bureau’s radar. In late 2012, Ohio Farm Bureau and 19 other ag groups sent a letter to farmers urging them to “lead the way in accepting responsibility and acting responsibly” when applying manure and fertilizer.

Since then, Ohio Farm Bureau and others have invested more than $1 million for research on ways to reduce nutrient runoff. Farmers have started practicing 4-R Nutrient Stewardship: choosing the right nutrient source to apply the right rate in the right place at the right time.

OFBF also was instrumental in getting a bill signed into law that requires anyone who applies commercial fertilizer on more than 50 acres to be certified by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. And earlier this month Ohio Farm Bureau helped launch Healthy Water Ohio, an initiative that has agriculture, conservation, business, water suppliers and others working together to develop a comprehensive water resources management plan for the state.

The tour was one of many conducted every year by staff members at Stone Lab, Ohio State University’s research facility that studies issues impacting the Great Lakes. It involved going out on a research boat to check out how clear the water was, visiting a laboratory where the lake’s water, plants and animals are examined, learning about the lake’s complex ecosystem at the aquatic visitors center and touring historic Gibraltar Island.

During the tour, Farm Bureau members were engaged, asking questions like are microplastics showing up in Lake Erie (not yet), what is the predicted algal bloom this year (smaller than last year), do more severe storms impact the lake (yes), can phosphorus be pulled out of the lake (no) and do invasive species affect the lake’s water quality (yes).

On this particular day there was no sign of the blue-green harmful algal blooms that have closed beaches, killed wildlife and cut into Lake Erie’s vibrant fishing industry (Lake Erie only has 2 percent of the Great Lakes water but 50 percent of the fish). The lake that day was slate blue and comfortably warm but also very choppy. All that wind was stirring up the lake and that meant bad news. Sure enough, the first Lake Erie swimming warning of the year was issued the next day.

Reducing the amount of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie will continue to be a challenge because it’s not an easy or quick fix. But it was encouraging to hear Stone Lab Director Jeff Reutter’s optimism. As he pointed out, the lake overcame a similar problem in the late 1960s and early 1970s and went on to become the walleye capital of the world.