Lake Erie Algae: 2019 was bad but could have been worse

Lake Erie Algae: 2019 was bad but could have been worse
January 10, 2020 James Proffitt, Great Lakes Now
Photo by Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick for NOAA via flickr.com (PDM 1.0)

Scientists who made predictions for Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom hit the mark this year after predicting a severe bloom event on Lake Erie’s Western Basin.

“The final assessment of the bloom size basically showed we were spot-on with the forecast,” said Laura Johnson, director of National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University. “We showed a bloom severity of 7.5 on a scale of zero to ten and so it suggests the models we are using right now to forecast blooms is working out pretty well.”

Each year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issues a series of HAB (harmful algal bloom) bulletins aimed at informing Lake Erie stakeholders of what’s currently going on with the algae. Scientists with Ohio Sea Grant/Stone Lab, Heidelberg, and other organizations analyze all available data and conditions as well as weather forecasts to predict how mild or severe the bloom might be. Weekly forecasts are issued during late spring and summer until the final forecast, which was made July 11 in 2019. After that, twice-weekly bulletins are offered featuring satellite imagery and HAB-related info.

During the past 15-plus years, Lake Erie has been the site of HABs caused by nutrients entering the lake. While some of the phosphorous and other nutrients that feed the blooms have been traced to consumer fertilizers and combined sewer overflows from municipalities, scientists have largely agreed in recent years that the vast majority of algae-feeding nutrients originate from farm fields and livestock operations, with a massive concentration in the Maumee River watershed.

“This year was a really odd year,” explained Johnson. “The fall (2018) and the spring (2019) were unusually wet and it basically prevented farmers from getting out onto their fields and spreading fertilizer and planting crops. Because of that, while we had enough water coming out of the Maumee River from March through July, the time period we focus on, for it to be similar to 2011 and 2015, really big bloom years, the amount of phosphorous was lower than we’d expected.”

NOAA’s algal bloom records show 2011 and 2015 as significantly more severe than other years, dating back to 2002. Even so, the 2019 bloom was severe enough to cause problems for many of those who rely on Lake Erie, including charter captains who earn their living getting people “onto” walleye, yellow perch and smallmouth bass.

Charter captains look to HABs forecast every year

“It was one of the top four or five blooms recorded, so to me that makes it a pretty large-scale bloom. But its hit-and-miss style made some areas less susceptible than others,” said Paul Pacholski, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. “And while the islands areas were gratefully spared, the Western Basin from the Michigan shoreline and the Ohio shoreline up to Catawba was not. It had an impact on the guides working the western part of the Western Basin this year.”

Pacholski said charter captains look to the weekly HABs bulletins to help plan their business activities and keep customers informed. He also noted that press coverage of the 2019 HABs didn’t seem to be as heavy as it has in the past.

“I definitely noticed,” he said. “And that’s not all bad, because every time that prediction goes out and the more play it gets the worse it is for business. We need the notoriety in order to get moving, but it’s a double-edged sword. By saying it’s a moderate bloom and not as expansive as some of the worse blooms it’s almost good news.

“But I always think, ‘Don’t put this on the back burner, we’ve got to fix this.’”

Pacholski said business in Lake Erie charter fishing should have been booming during 2019, but it wasn’t. And that’s despite the past two years having record-breaking spring walleye hatches reported by wildlife officials.

“Right now we’re bursting at the seams with walleye – every charter boat captain, every bait shop should have people standing in line waving their money at us to go fishing on Lake Erie,” he said. “And it wasn’t that way this season. It was just an okay season. A lot of boats in the west had to move east to support their business because of the algae. Over to Huron.”

Brent Sohngen, professor of environmental and resource economics at Ohio State University, said there is a strong connection between HABs and tourism on Ohio’s north coast.

“HABs definitely reduce trips to beaches, fishing trips and boating trips,” he said. “We don’t know the exact scale of the impact.”

According to Sohngen, the primary effect relating to fishing trips, according to a study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics in 2018, came from a reduction in the perceived quality of trips by anglers. Researchers found that folks traveling to northern Ohio to fish were willing to spend about $40 to $60 more per trip to avoid the effects of HABs. The estimated loss to Lake Erie-related businesses in the Western Basin likely runs between $7.5 and $14 million, according to researchers. Sohngen and fellow researchers collect information directly from tourists.

Agricultural data mined for insights

While he works with information provided by casual visitors, Sohngen also works with agricultural data.

“My reading of the literature and assessment of the analysis is that best management practices that are suggested are ineffective and worst yet, too costly,” he said. “We will spend a lot of money with the H2Ohio fund and make much less progress that we should.

Best management practices include such techniques as planting winter cover crops, installing riparian buffers along streams and ditches, and creating or restoring wetlands.

According to Sohngen, since crop farming applications of fertilizers are the major HABs driver, more can be done to control that aspect in the search for a solution.

“We have studies showing that phosphorous can be controlled by controlling farmer inputs,” Sohngen said. “And while there’s certainly an issue of historical phosphorous in the system that can’t be controlled by farmers, the only control we really have is input by the farmers. The economics shows that this is the cheapest thing to control and that it can have impacts.”

He cites evidence indicating a correlation between spring rains and phosphorous loading into the lake in conjunction with fertilizer prices.

“The issue of spring runoff is important. If spring runoff is high, phosphorous emissions are higher with lower fertilizer prices,” Sohngen explained. And conversely, he said, emissions are lower with high fertilizer prices.

“There aren’t any new solutions,” he said, “but the one solution that will work, reducing phosphorous inputs should still be on the table. It’s cheap and will be the most effective now and in the long run.”

2019 Tourism: good year

Brian Edwards, director of marketing and communications at Lake Erie Shores and Islands, said as far as tourism in general goes, 2019 was a good year.

“We have a survey that we push out to all our partners every year asking them ‘How did it go? Was it good or bad?’ And there was an algae question,” he said.

Partners include charter boats, restaurants, hotels, anything that touches tourism in the region. From the tourism standpoint, the bloom was relatively mild this year, according to Edwards, despite the HAB forecast of a moderately severe bloom.

“Just me speaking, I didn’t really see it. I didn’t see the green or the bloom, though I didn’t go all the way to the western-most point of the Western Basin close to Toledo,” Edwards said. “But in this vicinity, around the islands, I’ll say it didn’t have a major impact other than charter fishing, which it really does impact. I went to the islands about two dozen times this season.”

Edwards, like Pacholski, said he too noticed less media coverage in 2019.

“I know Gov. DeWine has mentioned it and I believe there’s been dollars earmarked to help solve this issue and so from my standpoint the media coverage was more on what we’re doing to solve the problem more than ‘Hey, we have a problem.’”

NOAA’s end-of-season summary indicates the bloom grew quickly in July due to calm winds. But stronger winds in August mixed surface algae to deeper water, making it less visible. Subsequent cooler weather in August and sustained winds over the lake dispersed the bloom.

Ohio lawmaker hopeful on solving issue

According to D.J. Swearingen, who replaced retiring 89th District Rep. Steve Arndt in August, 2019 saw movement in the right direction on Lake Erie’s algae problem.

“I was watching the Ohio State – Northwestern game a while back and there was a commercial for Stone Laboratory. That was great, it’s positive media that I think will resonate with a lot of people in our area,” he said. “Chris Winslow’s in the commercial and a bunch of Ohio State students are in the commercial and they show them doing their work on the algal blooms. Stuff like that I think is great at helping move the needle in the sense that the public is realizing there’s a problem that needs addressed and that people are working on it.”

In 2020, Swearingen said, less blame and more cooperation is on tap for Lake Erie.

“I’m starting to see less finger-pointing and more ‘What can I do to help in the process?’” he said. “I really like the direction of where we’re going.”

What can be done between now and the 2020 season?

Johnson said she’d encourage farmers to conduct their own studies.

“I would say talk to your local OSU extension to find out whether its particularly risky for your area or not. Try not applying fertilizer on a smaller area. Be scientists, conduct your own research,” she said. “In addition to soil testing, do tissue testing to see how much phosphorous is in your stalks.”

When asked if in the end it’s up to Mother Nature and her rain, Johnson said it’s a complicated equation.

“If we can get the phosphorous off the surface, then those rain events won’t be so impactful. But we have to be aware that all our efforts today, while we need to fix the blooms now, by mid-century, there could be enough climate changes that we’re going to be right back where we are now, but at least it won’t be worse because it could have been a lot worse,” she said. “And the flip side is that if what we’re going to see in the future is more like what we had this past year then farming is going to be more complicated in ways we can’t even predict.”

Pacholski agreed.

“It’s hearts and minds,” he said. “Most of the farmers are doing the right thing. But with these weather issues, climate change. I believe the bloom pretty much stayed in the western part of the basin, and a lot of people don’t believe it was as severe as it really was, but if you were in the west it was a really colorful year. It was bad. It really did move around a lot and the plume from the Detroit River was clear. It was definitely an odd year.”

Pacholski said he used to joke about climate change.

“I’m not joking anymore,” he said. “I believe.”

Featured Image: Harmful Algal Bloom in Western Basin of Lake Erie, Photo by Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick for NOAA via flickr.com (PDM 1.0)

To learn more about Lake Erie algal blooms watch our Great Black Swamp segment


  1. Sandy Bihn 4 years ago

    Please fact check commercial fertilizer use in the western basin of Lake Erie. The Ohio Farm Bureau has stated that the amount of commercial fertilizer/phosphorous being applied has decreased by 30-50% in the last decade because of cost and precision ag.
    Then consider that in 2019 that the amount of commercial fertilizer.phosphorous is estimated to be about 50% less because farmers did not plant in much of the Maumee River watershed. But we still had a significant bloom?
    What is missing in the above discussion is the continuing increase in cows, pigs, and poultry in the Maumee River watershed thus increasing the amount of manure with soil phosphorous allowances almost four times what is used for commercial fertilizer.
    In September of 2019, the Ohio Department of Agriculture issued draft permits for 28,000 more hog of which 19,000 are in the Auglaize whatershed which is known to already have excess phosphorous.
    This article fails to address manure ass one of the agricultural sources.
    While 2019 was not bad for the islands, it was a problem for Maumee Bay State Park lodge and camping visitors and for those of us living in the far western Lake Erie basin. We had dense algae from July 4th through Labor Day often with a foot foam which is known to have the toxin microcystin. The islands lucked out because the winds to did not blow the dense algae east as it did in 2018. Failing to address the increasing numbers of cows, pigs, and poultry/manure dooms Lake Erie to continuing and growing harmful algae and these articles fail to report on manure as a growing phosphorous source.

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