A harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie this summer is expected to be less severe than last year’s but larger than the one in 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The federal agency released its forecast for the bloom Thursday and said in a news release the bloom could range between a 5 and a 7.5 on the severity index with the largest blooms in 2011 and 2015 reaching a 10 and 10.5, respectively. Last year’s bloom was an 8.
The NOAA said the size of a bloom, which is caused by fertilizer and chemicals ending up in the lake, isn’t an indication of how toxic it will be even though the agency is working on tools to predict toxicity levels. And, in addition to the seasonal forecast, NOAA also issues bloom bulletins twice a week during the bloom season, which provide a three- to five-day forecast.
According to the release, visible blooms have not appeared until the end of July or the beginning of August because the bacteria that form the blooms typically start growing when water temperatures reached 65 to 70 degrees. This temperature increase usually occurs in the middle of June.
This year, the western basin warmed almost two weeks earlier than usual, reaching 70 degrees the last week of May, leading to the appearance of a small bloom.
“This early start does not change the forecast severity, because the bloom is determined by the amount of phosphorus that goes into the water,” NOAA oceanographer Richard Stumpf said. “Close attention to the weekly bulletins will be important through July and August to find the best places to enjoy the lake.”
In a news release, Ohio Environmental Council Water Resources Director Peter Bucher said the forecast “affirms the worries of many in northwestern Ohio that there will be a significant toxic algal bloom this year.”
“Earlier this year, the (Ohio Environmental Protection Agency) also highlighted the poor state of Lake Erie by designating the western basin impaired for algae and showed the severity of runoff pollution in the watershed,” he said. “Low precipitation levels have been the only thing in recent history that has kept the harmful algal blooms manageable for Lake Erie communities. They shouldn’t have to hope for a dry year to fully trust their drinking water or favorite beach.”
The forecast comes on the heels of an executive order Gov. John Kasich signed Wednesday designating eight watersheds to be in distress, allowing the Ohio Department of Agriculture to set standards for how farmers manage manure and fertilizer.
In a press release Thursday, Ohio Farmers Union President Joe Logan said the executive order was “well-intended” but shifts the initiative to a complex web of state agencies and should those agencies decide to take aggressive action, the implications for farmers could be profound.
“Whatever the eventual outcome, the process will be long and involved,” he said. “The proposed menu of possible rules and regulations are good agricultural policy (nutrient management planning), yet farmers, like all citizens, resist being told how they must conduct their affairs. Eventually, Lake Erie may express her own opinion on the urgency for needed action. When and if that happens, the governor, legislature or agency heads may need to face the need for adopting more straightforward actions such as commonsense limitations on application rates for manure and fertilizer.”
Vermilion Mayor Jim Forthofer said the city generally has concerns about algal blooms but typically those in the western basin of the lake don’t travel far enough east to affect Vermilion, which is Lorain County’s westernmost lakefront town.
“The lake did get warmer earlier this year, though, and it all is constantly evolving,” he said. “If it were to make it this far east, it wouldn’t be good for boaters or fishermen or anything like that but we typically don’t get them.”
Forthofer said that doesn’t mean the city won’t be keeping an eye on the blooms this year.
“If you’re in a room that isn’t on fire but the rest of the house is, you still have cause for concern,” he said.
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