Lyngbya wollei, south shore Maumee Bay in Ohio, September 23, 2009.
Lake Erie, declared dead by the news media in the 1960s because of widespread, repulsive algae blooms, is once again marred, this time by both old and new causes. Some scientists and lake advocates worry that the unsightly algae is a warning of a lake once again in decline.
Tom Bridgeman, a lake scientist with the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center, said, “I’ve never seen the water as green as it was this year — and it’s not showing any signs of dying off yet. This is a growing problem.” Increased phosphorus runoff from farms and city streets, coupled with the feeding and excretion habits of non-native mussels introduced through ballast water, is believed to be associated with the resurgent blooms.
The western end of the lake has suffered from a surge in microsystis algae this summer. Bridgeman hypothesizes that in addition to phosphorus, underwater sediment shifts are culpable.
A related problem is particularly acute in the western end of the lake. The previously unseen lyngbya wollei, which forms in stringy mats, was first noted in 2006. Called “a blue-green Godzilla” in southern U.S. waters, the cyanobacterium has inspired increasing research there.
Says Bihn says of the algae: “The problem here is as serious in the 60s and 70s — will the national headline be a fish kill, the drinking water is unfit, or what? The algae’s very serious and all we do is study and take no interim measures to reduce it.”
The smallest of the five North American Great Lakes in volume, Erie is also shallow, making it more vulnerable to underwater plant growth and algae. Government controls of phosphorus content in laundry detergent contributed to significant reductions in algae blooms in the 1970s and 1980s.
Photo credit: Sandy Bihn, Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association.