Environmental Quality Roundtable: Great Minds of the Great Lakes

Staff Blogger: Josh Hilgenberg, Advancement/Communications Intern


IMG_9881On July 9, Lakeside Chautauqua hosted an Environmental Water Quality Roundtable in response to last year’s destructive algal bloom, described as “off the charts” by Senator Rob Portman (on a scale of 1-10, the algae was a 10.5).

In attendance were distinguished panelists who spoke on the progress and steps being taken moving forward.

Kevin Sibbring, President/CEO of Lakeside Chautauqua, introduced the event and the premise behind it, ensuring attendees that these are the people who have the knowledge to solve the issue of the algae.

Following him was moderator of the panel, Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, former Director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab, who spoke on Senator Portman’s work towards fighting the algal bloom with four acts:
•   Reauthorization of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI)
•   Microbead removal in cleaning products
•   Harmful Algal Bloom Research & Control Act
•   Drinking Water Initiative

Dr. Reutter introduced “friend of Lake Erie” Senator Portman who reminded audience members that the issue has improved, recalling a 2015 fishing trip where he brought back a bottle of lake water turned dark green by the algae. Lake Erie is “a treasure,” and the most fertile of all the Great Lakes, reeling in more fish than all of the Great Lakes combined, resulting in a $6 billion dollar fishing industry. Unfortunately, it’s this fertility that makes our Lake Erie so susceptible to invasive species. With this in mind, Senator Portman asserted that residents cannot be complacent when it comes to keeping the lake clean – we must constantly monitor Lake Erie’s health.

On that note, Dr. Reutter passed the baton onto someone he calls the “czar” of Lake Erie, Karl Gebhardt, Deputy Director of Water Resources for Ohio EPA. Gebhardt explained that the restoration of the lake is dependent on the collaboration of many groups, primarily in Ohio, Michigan and Ontario. On June 13 of last year, the governments of these entities agreed to do just that by signing the Western Lake Erie Basin Collaborative. With the urging of the Governor, Gebhardt explained that his group set goals and timelines for the eventual 40% reduction in algal bloom by the year 2025.

The State of Ohio has created a plan to help move towards this goal with five guiding principles:
•   Implementation of point and
nonpoint sources of nutrients
•   Verification that what is being done now is effective
•   Documentation of water quality improving as a result of efforts
•   Adaptability when a strategy does not work or if new information is discovered
•   Accountability for ourselves and partners

Dr. Reutter then introduced Dr. Laura Johnson. She began by explaining briefly her work at the National Center for Water Quality Research, then explained why this year’s algae should not be as detrimental as last year’s.

Her lab connects the rise of phosphorous, a kind of food for algae, to land runoff from rains. Since this year has been fairly dry, there will be less runoff, less phosphorous in the water and less algae as a result.

She also pointed out that only 1-5% of applied fertilizer is lost into the water, meaning that farmers are not using obscene amounts of fertilizer. Rather, the lake is simply so delicate that even a small amount of phosphorous can have drastic effects, to the point that this small, seemingly insignificant amount of runoff accounts for almost 85% of the phosphorous in Lake Erie.

To put Lake Erie’s sensitivity in perspective, Dr. Johnson informed us that if this amount of fertilizer was going into other lakes they would not have as much of an issue, if any.

Introduced next was Dr. Rick Stumpf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who works with his team on monitoring the lake and the toxicity of the algae.

Bringing the forecast for the season, Dr. Stumpf finds that while this season is much better than before, the lake is still prone to a small bloom this year. It appears that blooms are able to carry over from one year to the next as a result of the phosphorous being left in the water, so while the waters are clear now, a small bloom should be expected later on during calm days.

He told attendees it appears that algae requires three things: phosphorous, nitrogen and light. Phosphorous affects the size, while nitrogen and light affect the toxicity levels. It should also be noted that toxicity decreases over time. He aptly pointed out that if they are able to eliminate the blooms that “toxicity doesn’t matter.”

Following Dr. Stumpf was Dr. Chris Winslow, Assistant Director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. He explained that there is currently $7 million worth of funding going towards 55 different projects, relating to the treatment of drinking water, the tracking of blooms from their sources, researching algal toxicity and engaging stakeholders.

Dr. Winslow also focused on putting information in the hands of the public. He points out that often times, findings are published in outlets that are obscure to the average citizen, but common amongst scientists, and he wishes to remedy this. He believes in the education of the public when it comes to the lake. Dr. Winslow assured the audience that the collaboration occurring as a result of these issues is remarkable.

More information on the projects discussed by Dr. Winslow is available at ohioseagrant.osu.edu/research/collaborations/habs.

Next to speak was Mark Smith, of the USDA Office of Budget and Program Analysis, who gave insight on the agricultural side of the issue.

The USDA is doing its part by providing incentive for farmers to adjust their current processes to benefit Lake Erie and prevent further blooms, informing and educating them on best practices and more. This January, a $77 million, three-year initiative was set in motion as a catalyst for these practices. Smith proudly told audience members that the direction for this money to be spent was heavily influenced by meetings involving more than 43 organizations that gave input on the project.

They also used information from more than 1,000 different interviews with farmers, inventorying information on all the work done on their fields. Using this information, they are able to better pinpoint which watersheds are creating issues for runoff in the water.

Director of the Great Lakes Water Program Gail Hesse and her team is behind the goal setting. She mentioned that the goal of 40% algae reduction by 2025 is possible, despite the fact that it will be difficult. Hesse also described the plan for implementation, explaining that we are all responsible for keeping the lake clean and promoting its health by monitoring it and keeping track of its progress.

Next, Dr. John Lekki of NASA Glenn spoke on his involvement in the initiative to clean Lake Erie. In 2006, NASA Glenn launched a new sensor, which they began testing over Lake Erie. Dr. Lekki and his teams continued this work until around 2014, when the 500-mile bloom hit Toledo. The EPA called NASA Glenn to assist them in watching the bloom’s development with this new sensor.

NASA Glenn shifted from testing to both testing and monitoring in efforts to help in any way it could. With this new sensor, NASA Glenn is able to capture better data than a satellite because it is below the clouds, and it is this advantage that allows it to continually provide necessary data to this day.

Last to speak was Executive Administrator of Fish Management at ODNR, Rich Carter. Carter briefly educated audience members on some statistics of Lake Erie, including that there are currently 300,000 licensed fishers in the state of Ohio, and that Lake Erie is the most environmentally diverse of the Great Lakes, again due to its high fertility.

However, a caveat to this diversity is the issue of invasive species. Carter informed us that along with problematic species like algae are fish such as carp, which have negative impacts on Lake Erie. Work is being done to counter the invasion, however.

Bringing the event to a close, Senator Portman thanked these “great minds of the Great Lakes,” and sent a message to everyone that we need to pull together because we all play a role in the future of Lake Erie.

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