September 22, 2008

Lake Erie Algae Reaching Hazardous Levels

Scientists are trying to determine why large algae blooms have largely returned to Lake Erie.

The blooms are toxic to fish and small animals.

"Algae is a big deal, especially the microcystis, what is often called the blue-green algae," said Tom Bridgeman, a professor of environmental science at the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center. "It's not aesthetically pleasing when it gets on boats or rots on the shore, but it can also be a health hazard."

In fact, of the 11 samples takes Sept. 3 from near West Sister Island, nince were more toxic than guidelines set by the World Health Organization. It won't kill people, but at minimum it's going to give swimmers a rash, said Geoffrey Horst, a Michigan State University graduate student who studies the algae.

The blooms are so large, they've been spotted on satellite photos.

Lake Erie was once known for its terrible pollution, but is now cleaner than ever before. However, the algae are leaving no room for celebration.

Water utilities along Ohio's Lake Erie shore spend thousands of dollars a day to kill the thick algae and to treat the bad smells and bad tastes that the organism causes, officials said.

"It's now blooming in the proportions that it was in the bad old days of the 1960s and early '70s," Bridgeman said. "There 's a mystery to it because the lake seemed to be getting cleaner, but now the algal blooms are worse."

Even dead, the algae poses a problem: decomposition of dead algae uses up oxygen and creates oxygen-free dead zones in the lake.

"There has already been a fish die-off in Lake Erie this season," said John Hageman, laboratory manager at Ohio State University's Stone Lab on Gibraltar Island.

Researchers suggest the algae might be blooming because it's fed by abundant phosphorus, which is running into the lake from increased suburban development.

"The same nutrient-rich fertilizers which cause our grass and crops to grow can cause the algae to grow in the lake," said Bridgeman, who calls the algae "Green Kool-Aid."


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