15th Apr, 2013

Lake Erie facing toxic algae bloom

Lake Erie - map showing toxic Blue Green AlgaeLake Erie is plagued by Blue Green Algae
At D. W. Howard Realty, a real estate sales company in the small, cottage community of Ridgeway Ontario Canada, we are all too familiar with the algae plaguing the Lake Erie and Port Colborne shorelines of Lake Erie, as well we are familiar which are the best and worst Lake Erie beaches and bays.


It reeks of rotting fish or an open sewer; strong and nauseating. It can contain E. coli bacteria, which is harmful when ingested by humans or pets. It can also contain cyanotoxin, which can cause skin irritation, respiratory difficulty and gastrointestinal distress.

Toxic algae appears every summer. The more frequent and heavy the rain downpours, the worse it becomes. Algae feed on phosphorus. New farming techniques, climate change, and changes in Lake Erie’s ecosystem make pollution a stubborn problem.

Poisonous blue-green algae is called Microcystis. It produces lake water concentrations of liver toxin microcystin. Dead algae sink to the lake bed. Bacteria decompose the algae, consuming most of the oxygen and thus creating a dead zone of up to 1/3 of the lake bottom in bad years. Fish that belong in these cold, deep waters die from lack of oxygen, or are forced upwards & outwards toward shore, where they cannot thrive.


The 1960’s Lake Erie was nicknamed “North America’s Dead Sea”  due to relentless unregulated sewage & industrial waste being dumped in the lake, creating algae blooms similar to what we are facing today.  Phosphorus flowed into Lake Erie from sewer & industrial outfalls, leaky septic tanks as well as runoff from fertilized farms and lawns. A multi-billion-dollar cleanup took place by Canada and the United States, which became a legendary success story in environmental cleanup as Lake Erie recovered. In addition, in the 1970’s – 1980’s, authorities reduced sources of phosphorus that feeds the toxic algae.

Sadly, the algae blooms have returned. Summer of 2011, Lake Erie faced the largest algae bloom in recorded history, with 1/6th of its waters covered, and tainting drinking water for 2.8 million people. Toxic blue-green algae spread in some areas as far as one could see, and up onto the shore. Hundreds of thousands of dead fish washed onto shores.

The zebra mussel, a foreign invader discovered in 1988 that now dominates Lake Erie, feast on nontoxic green algae, removing competition to toxic algae as well as reducing the base of the food chain for Lake Erie‘s fish. The mussels excrete phosphorus, a meal for toxic Microcystis algae.


Farmland supplies the majority of the phosphorus that currently feeds algae. A large amount of this phosphorus starts near Toledo, where the Maumee River empties into Lake Erie’s shallow western basin. The Maumee watershed area is Ohio’s breadbasket; mostly corn and soybeans, 2/3 of it farm land.  Plowing is declining: the Resource Conservation Service promotes anti-erosion methods like no-till farming, where seeds are inserted into small holes in unplowed ground. Fertilization is by casting pellets onto bare ground from trucks, or by spraying liquefied animal waste onto the cropland. Under the old plowing methods, pellets sank into the plowed soil and stayed there. Now, with pellets on top, rain and snow wash about 2% off of the soil, much of it winding up in the Maumee river, then in Lake Erie. This type of phosphorus is designed to fertilize plants, so the dangerous algae easily digest and thrive on it.  Recent climate change has brought heavier rains, washing fertilizer off farmland.


All Wainfleet Ontario homes with a septic system will have a mandatory septic inspection, and faulty systems (which cause runoff into Lake Erie) will have to be replaced with holding tanks. Click here for more detail on mandatory Wainfleet septic inspections and how this will cut phosphorus levels in Lake Erie.

The habits and equipment used by the 70,000  farmers along the Lake Erie shore need to change.  More soil testing and new GPS guided machinery ensture crops receive the minimum fertilizer they need. New equipment can put fertilizer in the ground during planting, rather than broadcasting pellets in the winter. Leaving land fallow beside streams also reduces runoff.

Contact D. W. Howard Realty now to discuss Lake Erie Waterfront real estate.


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