Another mild algal bloom expected for Lake Erie in 2021

The final forecast from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) is in, and the 2021 algal bloom is expected to have a low severity index of 3. This forecast uses an ensemble of different models, which consider phosphorus loading into the lake during the spring and early summer. 

“For the first time in a decade, we are actually looking at two consecutive years with a relatively mild bloom,” said Rick Stumpf, NOAA’s lead scientist for the agency’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. “It’s easy to say that things are looking good, but I should caution that if we are indeed in a drier period, we may go through a round of smaller blooms. If we go back into a wet period, we may have concern there.”

If realized, this will be the fourth year out of the past six that the algal bloom will be rated less than 4 on a scale of 1 (mild) to 10 (severe), and data suggests that weather is not the only determining factor for these lower numbers in recent years.

“We have seen an expansion of the use of conservation efforts, like cover crops, by 50% since 2012 and the state’s H2Ohio water quality initiative that has enrolled 1 million acres and nearly 2,000 farmers to do more and better nutrient management practices in the critical Maumee River Watershed,” said Jordan Hoewischer, director of water quality and research for Ohio Farm Bureau.

“Weather is certainly a major player when it comes to the severity of algal blooms, but it is time to take the proactive water quality measures farmers are doing into consideration when formulating algal bloom predictions. It doesn’t make sense to give all the credit to the weather on years when there is a smaller bloom and put all the blame on the farmers if there is a big bloom.”

According to the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, the amount of dissolved reactive phosphorus feeding into the Maumee River has been in a steady decline since 2015, and soil tests taken by The Fertilizer Institute show a continued downward trend of total phosphorus levels across Ohio over that same time period.

Add to that initiatives like H2Ohio and the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OACI) certification program helping farmers find more and better nutrient management practices and those results will continue in the right direction, according to Hoewischer.

“Progress has been made when it comes to agriculture’s role in improving Ohio’s water quality, but there is still plenty of work to be done,” Hoewischer said. “As H2Ohio expands into other areas of the Lake Erie Watershed, farmers need to get involved in that program and OACI to find additional ways to reduce nutrient runoff. The success of these voluntary programs are important, and if positive results aren’t achieved that could very well determine if additional regulations will be imposed on Ohio agriculture in the future.”

NOAA will release the final algal bloom statistics for 2021 in September.